"It's surprising," said catcher Russell Martin, who homered, scored three runs and caught four Dodgers pitchers in a tag-team 6-0 shutout of the Angels in the Freeway Series opener on Friday night. "We haven't played good enough baseball, but we're 2 1/2 games out and that's just the way it is."
The narrowing gap between the Dodgers and first-place Arizona is the smallest since May 22, and while Martin and Andre Ethier (three-run homer) led the offense, the win belonged to Chan Ho Park, healthy and happy back in the Southland and a leading contender for the Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Park, who opened the year in the Minor Leagues, made his third start of the season and second in place of the injured Brad Penny. He threw six scoreless innings, striking out seven without a walk. In the three starts, he's 1-0 with a 1.20 ERA.
Brian Falkenborg, Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito finished it up, Broxton and Saito striking out the side, Broxton firing 99-mph fastballs.
"I don't know where we'd be without him," said manager Joe Torre. "He's throwing hard, when you consider all the injuries over the years and you see his live arm."
Park doesn't light up the radar gun like that or even the way he did when he broke in with the Dodgers in 1994, fresh out of Korea. But seven years after leaving the Dodgers, he's back as the latest reclamation success. He's 3-2 with a 2.52 ERA, touching 95 mph on the radar gun with what Martin calls a "sneaky fastball," but also fooling hitters as talented as the first-place Angels with a breaking ball that bites.
"That's the old Chan Ho," said Martin, as if he would know. Martin was 11 when Park debuted.
"OK, I remember seeing him on TV," said Martin. "Now he uses both sides of the plate, moves the ball up and down and they have to honor that 95-mph heater, so they wind up chasing the breaking ball."
Park said he hasn't pitched this well in "five or six years," and it's more like seven. He left the Dodgers after the 2001 season for a $60 million contract from the Rangers and it's been endless injuries since then until now.
"Mechanical adjustments, better mentality, better family support, better city," Park said. "Better teammates."
Los Angeles, with its large Korean population, is a comfortable place for Park, who appeared in only one Major League game last year with the Mets and spent the rest of the year in the Minor Leagues. He said he enjoys talking to Dodgers fans when he's in the bullpen, which is where he's spent most of this season.
And he enjoys watching Martin. Who wouldn't? The day before, Martin did what virtually no catcher can do, play third base. And he did what some third basemen can't do, charging Nick Swisher's bunt full-speed with a bare-hand pickup to throw him out.
Torre said he would be comfortable playing Martin at shortstop with his athleticism and body control, but wouldn't be comfortable risking his health with a baserunner bearing down to take him out on a double play.
"I've never seen a catcher like him," said Park. "Watching him, with his energy. He's taking infield grounders in batting practice, taking fly balls, working hard. You can see the Dodgers future is with him."
Martin set the tone for the Dodgers to beat Joe Saunders (11-4), launching a two-out homer in the first inning to grab a share of the club lead with his eighth. A throwing error by Angels shortstop Erick Aybar contributed to a two-run fifth inning and Ethier, 1-for-14 coming in, iced the game with his blast off Justin Speier after coming on in the seventh as a defensive substitution.
The comfortable final margin made a footnote of the curious final out of the third inning, when rookie Andy LaRoche, with two outs and the bases loaded, not only bunted on his own, but was called out when the bunt bounced up and hit him on the hand after he left the batter's box.
"It wasn't something we designed," deadpanned Torre. "It's not something he ever did in the Minor Leagues. It was a heck of a time for him to pull it out of his bag."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.