SAN DIEGO -- Maybe the Los Angeles Dodgers have found their identity. They’re the team that wakes up in June and suddenly goes on a mad dash. Call it the “June Zoom.”
A year ago, the Dodgers went 42-8 starting June 22, which makes Sunday the one-year anniversary of that ridiculous joyride. This year they started a little earlier -- and more modestly. It’s not bad, though. They are playing .688 baseball since June 4, the night manager Don Mattingly called them “basically s-----.”
If you’re not prone to accept this notion -- that they’ve begun the move that will make them the juggernaut we thought they were -- your best piece of evidence might be what they do with the late innings. Can they count on this bullpen?
Their starting pitching is smothering and simply filthy. When the 34-year-old you weren’t counting on -- Josh Beckett -- is third in the league in ERA, your ace just might have thrown the greatest game in baseball history and Hyun-Jin Ryu -- who pitched six solid innings in the Dodgers’ 2-1 win Sunday over the San Diego Padres -- is clearly your fourth best starter, well, you’re pretty set there.
The offense? Not quite as overwhelming, but it’s third in the National League in runs scored, and now that Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez are hitting, it’s reasonable to expect better things to come. At some point, when the weather gets warmer, this team will score in bigger chunks. That’s just the way it feels.
Ahh, but the bullpen. Dodgers relievers are 13th out of 15 NL teams in ERA, 11th in batting average against and 13th in WHIP. Just Friday night, the team witnessed a depressing example of their relievers’ foibles, with closer Kenley Jansen coughing up three ninth-inning runs. Otherwise, they would be carrying a six-game winning streak into Kansas City, their next stop.
Is the Dodgers’ bullpen fixable? Well, there is the July 31 trade deadline, and general manager Ned Colletti isn’t likely to let the glut of guaranteed contracts in his bullpen stop him from landing a bankable setup guy.
But there are also some signs of internal progress, just in case Colletti finds the market skewed toward sellers, as it tends to become lately.
Lefty J.P. Howell has been the heart and soul of this group lately. He got four key outs Sunday after Ryu admitted to Mattingly that he was gassed. Jansen apparently made a key mechanical tweak before Saturday’s game; pitching for the third straight day for the first time this season, he looked as dominant as he ever did in 2013, when he was among the best in baseball.
Maybe it was the Padres, who have the most anemic offense in baseball (and it’s not close). But it probably wasn’t only that.
Jansen needed just 13 pitches to strike out the side -- Tommy Medica, Rene Rivera and Cameron Maybin. He was pumping 94 mph cutters and one 84 mph slider. Those hitters didn’t even look close to making contact.
“Today was as good as I’ve caught him all season long, the way his ball was moving,” catcher A.J. Ellis said. “When you’re throwing balls pretty much down the middle of the plate, and you’re getting swings and misses, it shows you’re pretty dominant. That’s what Kenley was doing today.”
Jansen is a hulking man, and precision has never been his thing. But Dodgers pitching coaches Rick Honeycutt, Chuck Crim and Kenny Howell got together with him in the bullpen Saturday and worked on getting the parts of his delivery in better sync. After that, Jansen -- pitching to many of the same hitters -- recorded two saves and helped ensure the Dodgers’ feel-good stretch continued. Indeed, they haven’t lost a series since that June 4 clunker to the Chicago White Sox.
“For him to make a quick correction -- sometimes you don’t even realize this stuff is going on -- tells you how good he is,” Mattingly said.
It seems we’re entering the stage of the season in which this Dodgers bullpen needs to make a series of corrections, or Colletti might make them for them. It seems unlikely the Dodgers would take any chances with the one area of the team that continues to cause them headache.