Four weeks ago today, with two outs and two strikes in the top of the 12th inning, Arizona utilityman Daniel Descalso lifted a three-run home run over the right-field wall at Dodger Stadium. Minutes later, the Diamondbacks wrapped up their 24th victory in the first 35 games of the season, bolstering their position atop all teams in the National League and kicking sand in the face of the Dodgers, nine games behind.
Though they won the following night, the Dodgers were far from done spiraling, losing their next six games to the last-place teams in the NL’s other two divisions and give us reason to invoke their counterparts from 2005. To this day, the Dodgers are 12-17 against sub-.500 teams in 2018.
But while the Dodgers were trying to end their nosedive, the Diamondbacks were just beginning theirs, dropping 15 out of 17 to fall all the way out of first place in the NL West and back to .500. And after reaching a low-water mark of 16-26 on May 16, Los Angeles has gone 13-4. Against MLB’s .500-or-better teams, the Dodgers are 17-13.
Overall, the Dodgers remain underwater at 29-30 and technically in fourth place in their division, but they have not only closed their NL West gap to two games behind Arizona, they are a reasonably modest 7 1/2 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers for the best record in the league. Given they have shown the ability to win again, ascending to the top of the division — if not the league — actually seems feasible.
To be within reach of that mark is a notable development, given the way Los Angeles began its season. It’s also remarkable given that the Dodgers have an entire starting rotation — Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Julio Urías — on the disabled list. (Don’t minimize the loss of Urías, who was supposed to be second only to Kershaw by this campaign before last year’s surgery.)
No joke: The Dodgers are moving into their next series, against the 30-29 Pittsburgh Pirates, with Ross Stripling (222 2/3 career innings) as their most experienced hurler, followed by a pair of rookies making their first MLB starts — former 38th-round draft pick Caleb Ferguson, whom reports indicate will be called up Wednesday, and converted shortstop Dennis Santana, who made his debut as a reliever Friday at Colorado. But it doesn’t feel scary anymore.
The list of unexpected saviors is long, ranging from five-star celebrities like Matt Kemp to the latest reclamation project, Max Muncy. Cast off by Oakland at the end of Spring Training in 2017, Muncy has nine homers in 107 at-bats for Los Angeles to go with a .349 on-base percentage and .551 slugging percentage. He is this year’s version of Chris Taylor, who himself has a .409 OBP while slugging .523 since becoming the team’s primary shortstop April 30, the day Corey Seager’s season-ending Tommy John surgery was announced.
Think about this: On your average night, three-fourths of the Dodger starting infield — Muncy, Taylor and Justin Turner — was acquired originally for the total cost of Zach Lee and some coins found under the Dodger sofa cushions.
Though Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs has found some fundamentals supporting Muncy’s emergence, it’s hard for me not to feel a little nervous about him sustaining it because it’s so out of nowhere. Right or wrong, I have fewer trepidations about Stripling (1.68 ERA, 227 ERA+), just because he’s been around longer for me to pay attention to (and these stories by Pedro Moura of the Athletic and Andy McCullough of the Times only help). Stripling and Walker Buehler (2.74 ERA, 139 ERA+) have been superb, with Buehler even recovering during his first Coors Field start to last five innings in the second of three straight comeback wins by the Dodgers.
As for Matt Kemp … I think I’m saving him for a separate post down the road. But to this point, I mean, it’s just crazy.
Anyway, it’s obviously possible that the past three weeks for the Dodgers have been a dead cat bounce. Starting pitchers could get lit up in Pittsburgh, the bullpen — which has also found its footing after a dubious debut to 2018 — implodes anew, and the team finds hits another skid that proves the recent upswing only postponed the inevitable. But now that you’ve seen the 2018 Dodgers play well even without their best players healthy, it seems worth holding onto the belief that they can hang in the race.
And then, if and when the intended starting pitchers do return from the disabled list, if and when Turner and Cody Bellinger kick into gear, if and when the Dodgers make a move near the trade deadline …
I’m getting ahead of myself. At any rate, I’m not sure there’s anything that would make the Dodgers better than an underdog when compared with the elite teams of the American League — the Yankees, Red Sox and Astros. But over the next few days or weeks or months, we may find they are as good a contender as there is in the NL. If it doesn’t happen, so be it. But I don’t mind thinking about if somehow, some way, this team that many counted out in mid-May became an underdog entering the World Series, a spoiler …
I know, I know. But that actually would be some kind of fun.