On Thursday afternoon, the Dodgers became the first team to clinch a postseason berth this year. With their 7-6 win in Arizona, they wrapped up the NL West title, their first since 2009 -- a remarkable turnaround for a team that was 30-42 as of June 21 and was still in the division basement on July 1.
Leading the way for the Dodgers was shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Playing in just his second game in the past week while battling a back issue -- caused by having to carry the team, no doubt -- he went 4-for-5 with a pair of homers and four RBIs. His towering three-run homer off Wade Miley in the third inning gave the Dodgers a 3-0 lead, but the Diamondbacks stormed in front with six runs in the bottom of the inning against Ricky Nolasco. The Dodgers clawed their way back with a pair of runs in the sixth, and then Ramirez's solo shot -- his 20th of the year in just 320 plate appearances, over which he's hit a sizzling .351/.403/.656 -- off Chaz Roe tied the game in the seventh:
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The Dodgers used the longball to take the lead as well, as A.J. Ellis tagged Josh Collmenter's first pitch for a solo homer in the eighth. Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen secured the last six outs, with the latter striking out both Paul Goldschmidt and Martin Prado, then getting Aaron Hill to fly out to Skip Schumaker in left field. Via MLB.com, here's the final out and the ensuing celebration:
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The party continued back in the visitor's locker room, where Yasiel Puig showed that his dance moves are just as good as his arm strength.
The victory, which raised the Dodgers' record to 88-65, was just their fifth in their last 15 games, though to be fair, manager Don Mattingly has been very conservative with regards to resting players such as Ramirez who have been nursing minor injuries. Indeed, Thursday's lineup lacked Carl Crawford (lower back stiffness), Andre Ethier (ankle sprain) and Adrian Gonzalez (quad cramp), and while it featured Matt Kemp, it was just his 66th game of the season following three separate trips to the disabled list.
For all of the money the Dodgers spent, becoming the first team besides the Yankees to breach the $200 million payroll barrier, they've rarely been able to put their best players on the field at the same time. Kemp and Ramirez, for example, have been in the same starting lineup just 14 times, and only their big three of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu have started more than 20 games. Thanks to that trio, the midseason jolt of energy provided by rookie Yasiel Puig, surprisingly good play by Ethier in centerfield, an unlikely rebound from Juan Uribe, and above all, patience from Mattingly even when he appeared to be on the brink of losing his job, the Dodgers reeled off a 42-8 run from late June into mid-August, and built a double-digit lead over the Diamondbacks by the time September rolled around. Ultimately, the division's most talented team won going away.
The Dodgers are currently 2 1/2 games behind the Braves (90-62) and 1 1/2 behind the Cardinals (89-63) as far as division leaders go. If that pecking order holds up, they would face the Cardinals, who would have home-field advantage in the Division Series. While surpassing one or both of those teams to gain home-field advantage in at least one round would be nice, making sure their regulars are as healthy and rested as possible is the bigger priority. All of that is for another day, as is the question of who will be next to clinch their division, since the Braves, whose magic number is two, don't play on Thursday night. For the moment, congratulations to the Dodgers, NL West champions.