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Player health at forefront, LA could overtake NL West

Player health at forefront, LA could overtake NL West

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Player health at forefront, LA could overtake NL West

LOS ANGELES -- In April, the experts thought the Dodgers and their $225 million payroll would run away with the National League West. They didn't.

In May, the experts projected that the last-place Dodgers would fire manager Don Mattingly. They wouldn't.

Club breakdowns
First-half highlights

Yasiel Puig's arrival had the experts predicting that the Dodgers had to trade Andre Ethier. They won't.

Coming out of the All-Star break, the resurrected Dodgers occupy second place in the NL West, 2 1/2 games behind the D-backs. Maybe that's not worth bragging about, but it's something, after the club utilized the disabled list a staggering 22 times in the first half. Among the wounded: starting pitchers Zack Greinke, Chad Billingsley, Josh Beckett, Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly and run producers Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford.

Mattingly didn't lose his head when those around him did. And he didn't lose his job. Ownership hung in there with the skipper, even though he hadn't won anything yet.

"I think you trust your talent," said Mattingly of his roster. "I haven't changed anything or tried to do anything differently. The guys have just gotten it together. We're getting healthy. Usually, water finds its mark. Talent is going to rise. It's going to come out. You've just got to trust it and not give in and keep working. We know that we can reel off a lot of wins."

It didn't hurt that the rest of the division reeled off a spate of losses, coming back to meet the Dodgers.

First-half awards
MVP: Adrian Gonzalez He exemplifies consistency on an inconsistent team.
Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw He is the best Dodgers starter since Orel Hershiser.
Rookie: Hyun-Jin Ryu With apologies to Puig, April and May do count.
Top reliever: Kenley Jansen Paco Rodriguez and J.P. Howell tie for second.

The Dodgers' first-half mainstays were All-Star Clayton Kershaw on the mound and the consistent Adrian Gonzalez in the middle of the batting order. A.J. Ellis was superb behind the plate and Juan Uribe reclaimed the third-base job in an unexpected comeback.

They've already added Ricky Nolasco to a starting rotation that lost Billingsley and Beckett to surgery. They're not done acquiring, whether it's another starting pitcher like Matt Garza, or more likely, bullpen help, especially if Carlos Marmol can't get it together.

They once trailed by as many as 9 1/2 games, and no Dodgers team has ever been that far behind and finished first. They were 12 games below .500, then went on a 17-5 run to be 47-47 at the break.

But as Mattingly reminded the team in a Sunday meeting, a year ago, they were in first place at the break, then lost four of the first five games afterward and spent most of the second half chasing the Giants. Despite all the ground the team picked up in the past few weeks with improved offense, it also scored only two runs in the last three games.

"We're not there yet. It's going to be a short second half. We've got to be ready to play," said Mattingly. "We've kind of gotten our confidence now and we're playing well. We've got some momentum. So the biggest thing now is not come out of the break like we're still on it. It's a fear for all managers that you come out of that break, and it takes you five days to get going, and next thing you know, you've lost three or four games if it goes wrong."

Players to watch in second half
Matt Kemp Once an ironman, will he ever be healthy?
Brandon League Can he turn it around as he did last year?
Jose Dominguez The righty is overheating the radar gun.

Statistically, the turnaround started on June 22. But folklore will fixate on June 3, the day that Puig was promoted from Double-A. Coincidence or not, Puig's reckless aggressiveness rubbed off on an underachieving team of veterans.

That's the urban legend, at least. Equally important was the return of Ramirez circa 2009, whose batting-champ form took the pressure off a revitalized Ethier and minimized the continued absence of Kemp.

Kemp, once an ironman, can't seem to stay healthy. Crawford is having the same problem. Ethier has lost his power, but at least he stays in the lineup. Too much responsibility is falling on the inexperienced shoulders of Puig, whose strikeouts started to soar after being the second Dodgers outfielder in the last year to slam into the wall at Coors Field and wind up with a worse injury than originally thought.

Until June 22, the Dodgers struggled both on the road and against division rivals. They turned around in the sprint to the All-Star break and won't play another game within the division until Aug. 30, finishing the season with 26 of the final 29 games against the NL West and 37 of 68 on the road.

"It really is a short second half, and it doesn't start in an easy manner," said Mattingly. "We go through the Nationals, a club that needs to get on a roll themselves. Then we go to Toronto, a team we know is full of talent. So it's not an easy start for us in the second half."

"I remember a year ago, [two weeks] after the All-Star break, we had a big series in San Francisco and swept them, and we left San Francisco tied in the NL West. And we came home, and the D-backs swept us right back in our park," said Ellis. "It's up to us to respond."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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