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Los Angeles Dodgers Eye Division Title as September Looms

Slow Start Gives Way to Historic Summer

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Los Angeles Dodgers Eye Division Title as September Looms

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Clayton Kershaw receiving his 9th win, 21 July 2013.

COMMENTARY | Heading into June, the Los Angeles Dodgers were in disarray.

Injuries, poor hitting and an unreliable bullpen had manager Don Mattingly facing a possible midseason exit. Despite the unbelievable debut of Yasiel Puig on June 3, the Dodgers continued to slide until they found themselves in last place, a season-worst 12 games under .500 after a loss to the San Diego Padres on June 21.

Yet, the next day, LA saw pitcher Zack Greinke pitch eight solid innings in perhaps his best outing since returning from the disabled list, and the Dodgers clobbered the Padres 6-1.

"A win like this is what we're capable of when we put it all together," said Mattingly at the time. "Hopefully it'll help us gain some confidence as a club and help us get on a little run here."

The Dodgers didn't just go on a little run. They went on an historic run, erasing the memories of a horrendous start to breathe life into a venerable franchise starving for its first World Series title in 25 years. After starting the season 30-42, LA was a torrid 42-8 in its following 50 games, the best stretch in the franchise's long history.

There were a number of factors to the turnaround, but it boiled down to solid starting pitching, timely hitting, and a consistent bullpen. The Dodgers turned it on all at once and they were suddenly almost impossible to beat.

Now the question remains whether they will be able to maintain their lead in the NL West and earn the division crown. With a little more than a month left in the season, the Dodgers have a 8.5-game lead on the Arizona Diamondbacks with the rest of the division clearly in the rear-view mirror. Arizona has played well this summer and remains a threat to track down the Dodgers. However, there are a number of reasons why LA should be able to hang on.

First, its starting pitching. Not only is Clayton Kershaw the best starter in the bigs, but he also appears to be on track for another Cy Young Award. His ERA is by far the best in the majors and if he had had some run support in his losses, he would easily have the most wins in the NL and perhaps all of MLB.

The rest of the rotation is also formidable with Greinke also pitching like a Cy Young contender. The Dodgers are 12-1 in his starts since the hot streak began on June 22, and he is 13-3 with a 2.86 ERA overall. With Kershaw and Greinke, LA will be hard to beat should it make the playoffs.

Rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu has also been outstanding, winning 12 games with a 3.08 ERA. The lefty has been particularly dominant at Dodger Stadium and gives LA an incredible third starter.

Much like last year's trade that brought Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Nick Punto, and Josh Beckett to LA from Boston, the Ricky Nolasco trade with Miami earlier this summer has given the Dodgers another key arm. With Beckett injured, LA needed a quality fourth starter and it got one in Nolasco. He's been fantastic since joining the club, going 5-1 with a 2.53 ERA.

Perhaps their only weak link in the rotation is fifth starter Chris Capuano, who has been dominant at times yet has shown quite a bit of inconsistency.

The second key to the Dodgers' success is the number of guys who have been able to contribute in the lineup. With injuries sidelining Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez and others, LA has had others step up with big hits all summer long. Ramirez missed most of the start of the season with a broken thumb, but he returned with vengeance. A recent shoulder injury slowed his progress, but he seems to be rounding back into form and has also made some incredible plays at shortstop.

Finally, the bullpen has been excellent. Closer Kenley Jansen has 92 strikeouts in less than 65 innings pitched. Second-year southpaw Paco Rodriguez has been virtually unhittable, and both J.P. Howell and Ronald Belisario have provided quality innings. With "The Beard" Brian Wilson joining the pen, it remains to be seen how he'll be a factor.

The Dodgers play seven games against the Diamondbacks down the stretch, and these games will have a huge impact on the race. Other than that, LA has a three-game series at Cincinnati -- and those are the only games remaining against teams with records over .500. Needless to say, if LA stays focused, it should be able to win the division and secure home-field advantage in the Division Series. It's also quite possible the Dodgers will be able to track down the Braves for the best record in the league.

For a franchise seemingly doomed to a lengthy and painful rebuilding process in the wake of the Frank McCourt scandal, this summer's unprecedented run has the city of LA bleeding Dodger blue once again.

Jeremy Scott grew up in Los Angeles and has followed the Dodgers since the late 1970s. He also has a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and spent nearly two decades covering sports for television news.

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