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August 9, 2006
Without taking anything away from the Dodgers, their 11-game winning streak--and really their manic-depressive ride through the second half--shows what scheduling can do to the perception of a team.
The Dodgers opened the second half against four of the NL's over-.500 teams: a road trip to St. Louis and Arizona, followed by six home games with the Cardinals and Padres. They won just one of 14 games in that stretch, arguably the most difficult you can have in the NL this year without playing the Mets. Down Jeff Kent for most of this period, with Cesar Izturis taking that playing time and with Nomar Garciaparra's bat in the lineup even less than his body was, the Dodgers scored just 26 runs in two weeks, topping three runs in a game just once in that time. With trade-deadline weekend opening, it was no longer clear whether the Dodgers were buyers or sellers.
On July 28, the Nationals came to Los Angeles as the entire baseball world waited to see where Alfonso Soriano would be headed. A deal was made that night, but it was Ned Colletti, not Jim Bowden, who pulled the trigger. He sent Willy Aybar and Danys Baez to Atlanta for Wilson Betemit, shoring up the production from third base. Betemit has hit .306/.359/.611 since the trade and has yet to experience a loss in Dodger Blue.
What's helped as much as Betemit is that the Dodgers have played a considerably softer slate since his arrival. His first game was against the Nats at Dodger Stadium. The team then went to Cincinnati to play the post-Kearns/Lopez Reds and to Florida before coming back home to face the Rockies. That's an infinitely easier slate than what they saw in the second half of July, and while it doesn't account for all of the difference between 1-13 and 11-0, it's certainly a factor.
You see this all over the schedule now, where teams play extended runs of good or bad teams and see their fortunes rise and fall not as much on their own play as the quality of the competition. The Dodgers weren't as bad as they looked coming out of the break, and they're not as good as they look right now.
Everybody jumped off the White Sox bandwagon after the break, when they opened up with a brutal stretch: trips to New York and Detroit, series with the Rangers and Twins, a trip to Toronto, and now another week of games with the Yankees and Tigers. Five of their first nine series out of the break are against top-five teams, plus a trip to Toronto. It's not going to get much easier: the Sox will play ten straight against the Twins and Tigers starting August 18. The White Sox are essentially the same team they were in June; they're just playing a much tougher schedule. The Blue Jays, to pick one more example, slipped out of the wild-card race in part due to a 2-8 stretch against the A's, Yankees and White Sox.
The point is that teams don't have a constant level of ability over the course of a season, and when you combine the natural variance of performance with a schedule that can turn on a dime, you can get stretches of play like losing 13 of 14 followed by an 11-game winning streak. The net effect-a 12-13 mark-isn't all that interesting, and the way in which it was assembled seems a lot more meaningful than it actually is.
Now, I don't want to be a total wet blanket here, because there are some on-field reasons for the Dodgers' surge. The absence of Izturis-whose playing time went to Betemit before the glove man was traded to the Cubs-seems to be critical. The Dodgers were 36-35 before he came off the disabled list, went 14-21 with him on the roster, and are 8-0 since he was dealt. While he's a solid defensive shortstop, Izturis' bat made him a major liability at any other position, and the Dodgers were hurting themselves by squeezing him in at second and third. Without him, they feature a much stronger lineup.
The Dodgers' best feature is their NL-leading .352 OBP, and during their streak, they've been reaching base and putting up runs in bunches. Rafael Furcal is off to another strong second half, and Kenny Lofton is getting on behind him. Rookies Andre Ethier and Russell Martin also have high OBPs, enabling the Dodgers to get by without Garciaparra, without Kent (until Monday) and without much production from J.D. Drew or Julio Lugo.
The offense has helped support a rotation that managed to go one full turn in which the starter got the win in every game. The Dodgers have allowed more than three runs just twice in the streak, with even problem child Mark Hendrickson pitching in with a quality start. The return of Brett Tomko, currently being used out of the bullpen, gives the Dodgers a solution to the Hendrickson problem if the big lefty continues to pitch at his established level, rather than his early-2006 fluke level.
The patchwork bullpen has become a real strength for the Dodgers, especially at the back end where Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito have looked like the new Guillermo Mota and Eric Gagne after scuffling towards the end of the first half and during that post-ASB meltdown. Free-talent guys like Joe Beimel and Giovanni Carrara have also pitched well. The Dodger bullpen isn't going to scare anyone, in part because only Broxton is a true power guy, but it has been a key part of this recent surge.
Given their roster depth-the return of Garciaparra will create a logjam in the infield, and they have seven starting pitchers-the Dodgers are in good shape to handle whatever happens in the next six weeks. They were the favorite, in my eyes, in April, and whatever I think of Ned Colletti's work in the aggregate, the team he's assembled is right now the best in the NL West. The Dodger winning streak is going to end, but it's likely that their season will go on longer than expected.