The postseason picture is far from complete, but resolution is near. We're gearing up for the playoffs by taking an in-depth look at the October-bound clubs and what it will take for them to reach the World Series.
We began Thursday with the Boston Red Sox and continue now with the National League West champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Dodgers made such a ridiculous run to first place in the NL West that they were able to afford a brief September sag.
Nagging injuries made the Dodgers' daily lineups more than the usual source of intrigue. A sore Andre Ethier ankle here, a sore Carl Crawford back there, a bum hamstring for Hanley Ramirez, a hurting hip for Yasiel Puig. All the bumps and bruises contributed to a 4-10 stretch that took notable steam out of the Dodgers' stride but didn't prevent them from locking up the West with Thursday's 7-6 victory over the second-place D-backs.
The beauty of a 53-17 roll is that it bought the Dodgers the ability to endure their recent injury-aided bump in the road without an overwhelming amount of fear or fretting. With Puig's quick return from the hip situation, Hanley back in the lineup and Matt Kemp making an instant impact after his return from the DL, we have reason to believe that, come October, the Dodgers will be healthy enough to look more like the juggernaut they were in July than the disoriented bunch they were in May.
Crazy calendar year for the Dodgers. The Boston blockbuster, the Zack Greinke signing, the Mattingly hot seat, the Puig intrigue. Never a dull moment in Hollywood.
Where will it all lead? Frankly, there's only one truly acceptable place for it all to lead, given the size of the investment and the level of interest attained by the summer surge. For the Dodgers' 2013 season to live up to its true potential, it has to lead to the land last traversed by Tommy and Orel and Sosh and Sax and a limping Gibby (hey, come to think of it, there's an injury concern that turned out pretty well).
The Dodgers, clearly, have the talent to get it done, or else that 53-17 surge never would have happened. While recent days have taken a little shine off the chrome, the fact remains that the Dodgers -- with Clayton Kershaw and Greinke both legit No. 1s and Hyun-Jin Ryu and Ricky Nolasco proving to be shrewd additions -- have as strong a rotational alignment as any club that will enter October, and that tends to go a long way.
For the Dodgers to climb from 23-32 to where they are now is, of course, a credit to Mattingly. His stellar and ultimately injury hampered playing career never reached World Series pay dirt, but now he's got a genuine shot thanks to the calm and collected demeanor that suited him and his club well when they were in the dumps and his job security was a daily topic among the talking heads.
Turns out, it was a topic among the Dodgers' brass, too, as Mattingly himself acknowledged after the wins had piled up and his seat had cooled considerably. Rather than buckle under the pressure, Mattingly called his club out for a lack of fight. But it's no coincidence that the fight improved considerably when Puig arrived and Hanley got healthy and, together, they lit up NL pitching. And the Dodgers' pitching naturally improved once Greinke settled in after that ugly collarbone-breaking tussle with Carlos Quentin.
So for the Dodgers, the story all along, essentially, has been health. When they've had it, they've been about as unbeatable as a Major League club can reasonably hope to be.
And when they don't? It's the Dodger blues.
All the more reason to watch that injury report closely come October.
The bats: The Dodgers are smack dab in the middle of the pack offensively, averaging 4.06 runs per game this season. Context is key, though, because it was a 3.55 average before Puig's June 3 arrival and a 4.35 mark since. The Dodgers get above-average production from six positions (and the unrelated Ellises -- Mark and A.J. -- are strong enough defensively to make up for any offensive shortcomings). It just remains to be seen how Mattingly doles out the October innings in the outfield, now that Kemp is back in the picture.
The arms: The rotation, as mentioned, is as good as it gets. Kershaw is having a slam-dunk NL Cy Young Award season (14-9, 1.94 ERA, 0.928 WHIP), and Greinke, Ryu and Nolasco all have adjusted ERAs at least 17 percent above the league average. The bullpen was a weakness early in the season but became a strength when Kenley Jansen took over the closing duties from Brandon League, and it has depth in the form of Ronald Belisario, J.P. Howell, rookies Paco Rodriguez and Chris Withrow and, of course, Brian Wilson, who has fit in wonderfully.
The MVP: Puig would be a popular pick, and Mattingly has said he'd cast his vote for the steady Adrian Gonzalez. But generally speaking, the Dodgers seem to go as Hanley (.343/.397/.633) goes, which is why they can't really afford for his hamstring injury to linger. Mattingly has said he'll continue to give Ramirez rest here and there for the remainder of the regular season.
The ace: Other than leading all MLB starters in WAR, ERA and WHIP while leading the NL in strikeouts, Kershaw has had an awful year. The kicker? He's 25 years old.
The unsung hero: With all those aforementioned MVP-type commodities in the lineup, it's easy to overlook the resurrection of Juan Uribe. After winning a World Series with the Giants in 2010, Uribe looked like a $21 million bust two years into his three-year deal with the Dodgers. He hit .204 in 2011 and .191 last year. This season, at the age of 33, Uribe's .273/.327/.434 slash line, combined with his defense, has made him one of the more valuable third basemen in baseball.
The pressing question: Hanley's hamstring and Kemp's role are big ones. But there's also the Puig issue. Count me among those who have been all for just letting the Cuban-born Puig play and adapt to the Major League setting, even as his occasional antics ran against the grain. Having said that, it's going to be awfully interesting to see Puig on the postseason stage, where every mistake is amplified and showmanship is even more scrutinized. Like all things with Puig, it's going to be must-see TV. But will it impact the Dodgers' bottom line?