As the Dodgers roll into Nationals Park to open the second half, they find themselves a mere 2 1/2 games in back of the Diamondbacks in the NL West. They've certainly come a long way from the last place team they put on the field for much of the first half. I suppose winning 17 of 22 games will help just about any team get to first place.
What are the keys to taking over first and staying there? It's simple - health and middle relief. Any letdown in either category could find the boys in blue on the outside looking in this postseason.
Pretty much any team can claim these two keys will make or break them, but for the Dodgers, it seems especially true. Their offense can strike from so many different ways when everyone is on the field. Their starting pitching can be fantastic, as is their closer, so those couple of innings or so where neither is used could turn the tide.
The Dodgers are an even 47-47 right now and don't have any players who have appeared in every game. Andre Ethier and Adrian Gonzalez have each played in 91. That might surprise people considering Ethier was ice cold to start the season and is at times looked at as the fourth outfielder. Gonzalez has clearly sucked it up and played some games where he deserved a day off.
Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, and Hanley Ramirez have all gone through ups and downs of spending time on the DL. Of the three, only Ramirez has really made a big impact. Through 39 games, he's hitting .386 with 8 homers and 25 RBIs. Crawford started off the season very well, but has cooled off to hit .273 in 59 games.
As for Kemp, it's been a struggle to say the least. He simply cannot find a way to stay on the field for extended periods of time. He's played in 61 games (which is more than I thought), but has very low numbers at .254, 4 homers, and 24 RBIs. I can't imagine his shoulder will be healthy enough this season to the point where he'll make a major difference. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm skeptical.
Even Yasiel Puig has been playing with a sore left hip. Not being picked to go to New York for the All-Star Game was probably a blessing in disguise when it's all said and done. He's been able to rest and present an award at the ESPY's with Gabby Douglas. I'm guessing he still has no idea who she is.
The starting pitching has also been hit, as Zack Greinke, Stephen Fife, Chris Capuano, and Ted Lilly have all missed various amounts of time. Greinke looks to be back at full strength judging by his dominating last two starts. Can you imagine what the Dodgers would do if Clayton Kershaw got hurt? I don't even want to think about that.
As for the other key, you can bet Ned Colletti will continue to pursue middle relief help. More specifically, help from the right side in the 'pen. On the left side, J.P. Howell and Paco Rodriguez have done a great job. Howell owns a 2.27 ERA and 1.11 WHIP, while Rodriguez has a 2.45 ERA and 0.77 WHIP. Their roles will be big in the stretch run.
The right-handed pitchers not named Kenley Jansen have been a disappointment. Gone are names like Matt Guerrier, Peter Moylan, and Javy Guerra. Brandon League was a colossal bust as the closer with a 6.25 ERA in 34 games, Ronald Belsario is so hot and cold it's hard to know what to expect, and Carlos Marmol is tough to trust as a legit answer. Young guns Jose Dominguez and Chris Withrow could be good, but also could wilt under the pressure. We'll see.
If the Dodgers can improve their bullpen and get some luck with their health, they can definitely win the NL West. The Padres won't contend, so forget about them. The Rockies have a great lineup... when healthy (sound familiar?). I wouldn't count on them to be in the race, either.
That leaves the Giants and Diamondbacks to worry about. I don't care how awful the Giants have looked before the break, they always find a way to win when it matters the most. They're not going away at all. The Diamondbacks can hit and pitch, but have a huge issue at closer. It's 2013 and you're still using Heath Bell to finish off games? That's not a good sign.
In the end, I expect to see another Dodgers-Giants battle for first. Let's hope it's the Dodgers come out on top for a change.