By Mark Lamport-Stokes
Oct 1 (Reuters) - Twenty-five years after winning their most recent National League (NL) pennant, the resurgent Los Angeles Dodgers have their sights set on World Series glory to cap what has been an astonishing 2013 season.
Underpinned by brilliant pitching, reliable batting depth and important contributions from 'rank-and-file' players, the Dodgers became the first team to reach the playoffs and many believe they now have what it takes to go the distance.
Yet their loyal fans know full well that nothing can be taken for granted, still painfully aware that their beloved team had languished 9-1/2 games out of first place in the NL West on June 22 after starting their campaign amid high expectations.
Despite a $230 million player payroll, the Dodgers initially failed to click and faced further setbacks with injuries to several key players before they finally turned their season around in sensational fashion.
No wonder, then, that basketball great Magic Johnson, who is a member of the group of investors that purchased the club last year, exercised caution after the Dodgers had clinched their division title.
"We only accomplished Goal #1," former Lakers point guard Johnson tweeted about the Dodgers, who have not won the NL pennant since 1988 when they went on to clinch the World Series for a sixth time.
"Today we have to set our sights on goal #2 defeating whoever our opponent is in the playoffs!"
The biggest trump card for the Dodgers will be their pitching and any opponent will have to overcome the potent one-two of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, whose earned run averages rank first and seventh in the majors, respectively.
"They're on a roll that baseball hasn't seen in many, many years," Chicago Cubs manager Dale Sveum said of the Dodgers' mid-season turnaround. "Part of it is, obviously, the offense.
"But when you have Greinke, Kershaw going two out of five days, you're talking about two guys who can win Cy Youngs in any given year or throw a no-hitter on any given day."
Left-hander Kershaw leads the majors with his 1.83 earned run average and is a prime contender to win the NL's Cy Young Award for a second time. He previously won the accolade in 2011 as the NL's best pitcher.
These are certainly heady days for the Dodgers who fell into bankruptcy in 2011 as owner Frank McCourt and his wife battled in divorce court before a comeback was sparked when Guggenheim Baseball Management, a group of investors including Johnson, acquired the team in early May last year.
The new owners spent heavily to sign free agents like Greinke, trade for players such as Adrian Gonzales, Josh Beckett and former National League batting champion Hanley Ramirez and add emerging talent in the shape of South Korean star pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin.
Perhaps most significantly, the promotion to the majors of muscular Cuban refugee Yasiel Puig on June 3 gave the Dodgers an electrifying boost as the 22-year-old with the home run swing and rifle arm compiled 44 hits in his first month with the team.
However, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly is quick to bracket the influence of Puig with the June return of Ramirez from the disabled list.
"You can't say Puig without saying Hanley," Mattingly said. "Puig got a lot of attention. Hanley was the force."
The one thing which Mattingly cannot control during the postseason is player injury and he has some concerns over Andre Ethier (shin splints), Ramirez (back nerve) and Matt Kemp (already three times on the disabled list).
"It's tough to think you wouldn't play healthy," said Mattingly. "You don't really want to play short. We're always making plans for different scenarios." (Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)