Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Is this turning point in the Dodgers' season?

Just as Matt Kemp made a fantastic catch near the wall in center to give the Dodgers a 6-5 win on Tuesday night, something became apparent that hasn't happened all season.

The Dodgers may finally be ready to start winning.

The win marked four straight, which hasn't happened all year.  That's hard to believe that at no point in a three-month span they've managed to even accidentally win four in a row, but it's true.  Issues on both sides of the field to go along with countless injuries have made this a first half to largely forget.

Over the last few days, however, things have slowly started to look up.  Here are five things that have gone right and are giving Dodger fans reasons for getting excited.

1) Yasiel Puig.  To put in perspective just how enormous he's been this season, take this into account: an 0-for-4 night on Tuesday DROPPED his average to .420.  Yup, I'd say he's pretty darn good.

His average won't always be this high, so he'll start to gradually level off.  But that's OK.  He's been so electric in the field and powerful at the plate, his mere presence gives the Dodgers an added edge, much like the arrival of Manny Ramirez in 2008.  His impact alone hasn't carried the Dodgers, but combined with the returns of Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp, it certainly can.

2) Hanley Ramirez.  For the first time all season, Ramirez is healthy and letting it rip.  He is absolutely smashing the ball right now.  In 50 at-bats since coming off the DL earlier in June, he's hitting .340 with three doubles, four homers, and 12 RBIs.

Perhaps most encouraging are the comments made my Ramirez himself.  In his mind, this is the best he's felt at the plate since 2009.  How good was he that year?  .342, 42 doubles, 24 homers, 106 RBIs.  Holy crap.  If he truly does feel this good, then look out.  He's going to remind people all over again why he's one of the best in the majors.

3) Matt Kemp is back from the DL.  Time will tell how effective he'll be, or even how healthy he is.  But in one game, he already showed how much the Dodgers need him.  He singled in the sixth, then ended up scoring from second on a single by Tim Federowicz, showing great speed.  Then there was the catch to keep the lead in the ninth as the Giants had two on and two out.  He had to range back and make the catch without crashing into the wall.  A very difficult play, especially for someone who hasn't played center in about a month.

It's easy to think that Kemp should automatically be the powerhouse performer circa 2011, but he's a different player right now.  Injuries have taken their toll the last couple of seasons.  What the Dodgers can hope for is that he plays a great center field and doesn't strikeout too much.  The big hits will come if he can stay disciplined and not try to win it all every at-bat.

4) Kenley Jansen is the closer.  Need more proof that Jansen was the right call over Brandon League as the team's closer?  Look no further than Tuesday night.  Jansen needed rest, so League was given a chance to close out a three-run game and was absolutely abysmal.  Three straight hits nearly handed the lead right back.  Thankfully Paco Rodiguez and Kemp's final catch helped keep the lead, but barely.

Jansen blew his first save after being named closer a couple weeks back, but has since made three straight dominating appearances, striking out eight in three innings, while collecting two saves.  That's the type of pitcher we know he can be.  But let's face it, anybody is better than League!

5) The back end of the rotation is stepping up.  The Dodgers have cycled through starting pitcher after starting pitcher the whole season with mixed results.  For every great Clayton Kershaw start, there's been a walkfest by Matt Magill.  But, the last handful of starts by Stephen Fife and Chris Capuano have been very encouraging.  Combine that with Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu, and the Dodgers may finally have a settled rotation.

Keep in mind that Chad Billingsley, Josh Beckett, and Ted Lilly are currently on the shelf.  We know Billingsley is gone for the year and Beckett is a giant question mark.  Lilly seems like he's close to returning, so I'm sure he'll get some action either in the bullpen or as a spot starter.  If we've learned anything about this team, it's that they can use all the healthy arms they can get.

It's not like the Dodgers are without flaws, but I will say this: if Kershaw can once again outduel Tim Lincecum to complete the three-game sweep of the Giants on Wednesday, then this is definitely the turning point of the season.  In the NL West where the division-leading Diamondbacks are a mere six games over .500, the improved Dodgers can start chipping away at their seven-game deficit heading into the All-Star break.

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