Before the season began, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti had assembled a team of superstars with a National League record payroll north of $200 million. Still, the club was foundering during the season's first two and a half months. The team's troubles started in spring training when shortstop Hanley Ramirez injured his thumb with just three innings left in the World Baseball Classic. On April 12 starter Zack Greinke was lost to a fractured collarbone midway through his second start during an on-field brawl with the Padres. Outfielders Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford also logged DL time.
Yasiel Puig debuted on June 3 and Ramirez returned from a second injury on June 4, but the Dodgers still lost more than they won for the first two and a half weeks both were in the lineup. By June 21, the Dodgers were 12 games under .500 and 9 1/2 games out of first place in the NL West. Rumors had been circulating about manager Don Mattingly's job security.
"Every day you look for it to turn," Colletti said in a telephone interview. "Every day you look for the sun to come out. For a while, the sun wasn't coming out. It was important that our effort would stay true, on the field and off the field."
When the Dodgers finally heated up after the summer solstice, they grew scorching hot, going 42-8 over a 50-game stretch (before Sunday's loss in Philadelphia), winning 19 of 20 road games and not losing back-to-back games since June 20-21. They are now 19 games over .500 and lead the division by 7 1/2 games.
Los Angeles has sustained its streak with consistently brilliant starting pitching. The rotation had a 2.54 ERA over those 50 games, and in exactly half of them, 25, did a Dodgers starting pitcher exit having allowed either zero or one earned run. The staff's season ERA is now 3.16, the lowest in the majors.
Of course, Log Angeles never imagined this spring that it would be winning with Ricky Nolasco and Stephen Fife starting games, given that Nolasco was a Marlin and Fife was no better than ninth on the team's preseason depth chart. In fact, a major topic for the Dodgers this spring was what they should do with their surplus starting pitching; they traded Aaron Harang, kept the rest -- and still needed more.
Colletti said, "People were talking, 'You've got eight starting pitchers. What are you going to do with all these starting pitchers? Guys are going to be upset. There aren't going to be enough innings.'
"Three weeks into the season we were using our ninth different starting pitcher. That kind of set an early tone."
There's obviously a huge amount of talent atop the rotation: Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game; Zack Greinke is a former Cy Young winner; and Hyun-jin Ryu will garner some NL Rookie of the Year attention (though in a strong class with Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller and Puig, Ryu likely won't win).
But such consistency day in and day out also suggests a coordinated approach of preparation from scouts, video and data study, as well as the pitching coach, catcher and the pitchers themselves. Colletti said the Dodgers have always been thorough in this manner, but he has noticed increased collaboration, often most visible in mound visits with the catcher, pitching coach and/or the infielders.
"There's this collective effort of support and preparation," the GM said. "Preparation can happen at 3:00 for a 7:00 game. It can also happen at 8:30 for a pitch at 8:31."
In reflecting on the season to date, Colletti was effusive about the cohesiveness and positive spirit of his club throughout the season, especially the first-half adversity. And he praised the energy that Puig helped bring to the team, too. The Cuban native finished his first game in the big leagues by catching a flyball on the rightfield warning track and throwing a perfect strike -- across his body, no less -- to complete a game-ending double play at first base, at which point he joyously sprinted toward the other outfielders. After the play, Colletti remembered seeing the beaming face of centerfielder Andre Ethier.
"When the TV camera caught up to both of them," Colletti said, "it was a good sign. It showed passion. It showed excitement. And it showed spark."
The last time L.A. went on a memorable second-half tear to reach the postseason was 2008. That time, however, they reloaded with trade acquisitions of Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake and Greg Maddux, whereas the '13 team reinstated its own players from the disabled list. Another key difference: The '08 team never managed a streak better than 19-8, not even half as good as the '13 club's 42-8 stretch.
The last time a team won 42 out of 50 baseball games was back in 1942, when the Cardinals accomplished the feat. Colletti and team president Stan Kasten hadn't been born yet. Vin Scully, the Dodgers' legendary octogenarian broadcaster, was a teenager.
"Once the team started to get healthy, we felt that it would be successful," Colletti said. "We could get back in it and compete. The blessing and the curse of baseball is that you're playing it pretty much every day, and so you don't have a week to recover. You don't have a week for players to get physically healthier to play. It's a constant turnaround from one night to the next. We went through a tough period. But we did stay together."
With reliever Brian Wilson set to join the team this week and Kemp at some point later, more reinforcements are coming, with the sun likely to keep shining on the Dodgers.
• Where is baseball's middle class? One third of all teams (i.e. 10) have 70 or more wins, but only five have win totals greater than 60. With the 70-plus win teams neatly divided into five in each league, the playoff picture is coming into focus.
• It's hard to focus on his performance given the extraneous dramatics and accusations on and off the field, but Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez has a .319/.407/.489 batting line with two homers in 12 games, which is a really high rate of production.
• The AL home run race has been fun: Baltimore's Chris Davis has homered in eight of his last 17 games to reach 45, while Detroit's Miguel Cabrera has homered in 10 of his last 21 games for a season total of 40. The last time two players reached 50 home runs in the same season was in 2007, when Rodriguez hit 54 and Prince Fielder slugged 50.
• Arizona beat the Pirates in 16 innings on Sunday for its majors-leading 13th extra-inning win and 27th in its final at bat, according to the AP; it was also the club's 36th comeback win which ranks second in baseball. The Diamondbacks had similar heroics in their NL West-winning 2011 season, when they ranked No. 1 with 48 come-from-behind wins.
Three Up, Three Down: Playoff Odds
Baseball Prospectus updates its daily standings with percentage likelihoods of each club reaching the postseason. This Playoff Odds Report includes a seven-day delta, showing the change in their likelihood of making the playoffs over the last week. Below is a summary of the three teams who helped and hurt themselves the most since last Monday.
(Also of note: The three favorites to win the World Series are the Tigers at 25.2 percent, the Braves at 13.0 percent and the Dodgers at 12.1 percent.)
1. Rays, +8.6 percent
Tampa Bay is now a nearly 90-percent bet to make the postseason.
2. Yankees, +3.1 percent
New York is still a long shot (5.4 percent), but it more than doubled its chances.
3. Diamondbacks, +2.9 percent
Arizona cracked double digits this week, improving its playoff chances to 11.2 percent.
1. Orioles, -10.2 percent
Baltimore's playoff chances took a big hit, falling from roughly one in three to one in four.
2. Red Sox, -3.1 percent
Boston remains the AL East favorite but its lead is now just one game.
3. Royals, -2.8 percent
Kansas City has won just four of its last 10, which makes it difficult to gain ground on wild card leaders Oakland and Tampa Bay.
Trend to track: Groundball rates
Baseball has been an increasingly grounded game. Since 2009, league-wide groundball-to-flyball rates have increased each season, according to data from STATS LLC.
The implications are profund: more emphasis on infield defense and more need to sustain rallies, as groundballs tend to only be extra-base hits if they are struck right down the lines. A search of league-wide pitching data at FanGraphs shows little deviation in the percentage of cutters and changeups (two pitches that lead to groundballs more than most) thrown the last few seasons, suggesting that the reason for the uptick in grounders may be related to more sinking two-seam fastballs (which are not differentiated at FanGraphs) or to location down in the zone.
About five years ago, Mark Trumbo's personal trainer, David Constant, suggested that the two learn to play the guitar. "One of us stuck with it," Trumbo said. "One didn't." Trumbo's deadpanned ribbing of Constant was a good-natured inside joke, but Trumbo's surely glad he was the one who kept practicing after he had the chance this summer to jam with none other than Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready.
Trumbo, who leads the Angels with 28 home runs, said the meeting happened on an off-day in Seattle, at the arrangement of a mutual friend, Jerry Blair, Angel Stadium's head of security. Trumbo went to Pearl Jam's warehouse (where they house their gear, merchandise and satellite radio station) and to McCready's house to play some music. (Trumbo tweeted this photo about the experience.)
"He ran us through a couple of the tunes they play, and I hacked my way through a couple of the riffs that I knew from their stuff," Trumbo said. "It was awesome. It's probably something I'll be able to reflect on more down the road."
Trumbo has played the drums since he was 12 or 13 years old. He grew up idolizing Led Zeppelin's John Bonham and Rush's Neil Peart and currently counts Thrice's Riley Breckenridge as a good friend. (Breckernridge is also co-author of the baseball blog Productive Outs.) In the offseason, Trumbo, an Anaheim native, tries to see as many shows as he can around Southern California, usually 10 to 20. "Small shows, some bigger shows and everything in between," he said.
Asked if he'd ever want to play in a band when his baseball days are over, Trumbo said, "It would be pretty cool. Not for a career but for a hobby."
The Final Out
Red Sox infield prospect Xander Bogaerts reportedly is getting a promotion to the majors on Monday, a little more than a year after the Orioles' Manny Machado made his debut on Aug 9 of last year. The way mid-June has become a common time for a wave of promotions after the Super 2 cut-off, look for August to become a popular time for a second wave for contending clubs to promote prospects. The second wild card has reduced the pool of selling teams at the trade deadline, so it may seem increasingly advantageous for clubs to promote from within rather than pay prohibitive prospect costs for veterans in trades.