Dodgers are navigating a tricky stretch

PITTSBURGH -- A.J. Ellis wore a dark blue T-shirt under his uniform and catchers gear Monday night in Pittsburgh. After catching nine innings on a muggy night, the shirt was navy blue, soaked completely through by sweat.

It’s getting into that time of the year, the hottest months. Teams begin to separate themselves, the trade deadline looms and tension rises. For the Los Angeles Dodgers, the post-All-Star break portion of their schedule has begun drenched in stress.

It ratcheted up some more on Monday, with their two best players visiting the X-ray machine instead of the batter’s box. The Dodgers only have two players among the Top 70 in the majors in OPS and neither of them was in the lineup Monday night. They might not be healthy enough to play Tuesday, either. Who knows about Wednesday?

Indeed, Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez still are nursing badly bruised hands, injuries caused by errant pitches by St. Louis Cardinals pitchers over the weekend.

Add that to the fact the Dodgers got to Pittsburgh at about 4 a.m. to face an improving Pirates team that had won six in a row at home, and it wasn’t the ideal get-well locale.

Oh, and on Tuesday, the Dodgers will line up behind a 34-year-old pitcher, Josh Beckett, coming off the disabled list admitting he’ll probably be pitching the rest of this season with pain from a hip impingement. Oh, and Wednesday they’re starting Dan Haren, who has allowed 18 home runs over his past 13 starts, during which he has a 5.25 ERA.

So Monday night’s 5-2 win was bigger than your average nondescript major league game. The Dodgers are just dipping their toes in the deep end of the pool -- they open the second half with 26 of 29 games against contending teams -- and so far they’ve hung in there under trying conditions, going 2-2.

Monday felt like another key test. And every time they pass one of those, they feel a little better about what’s to come.

“I think it shows that we’re not based around Puig or based around Hanley. We’re based around a team,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “If we get quality at-bats, we can score plenty of runs.”

Apparently they weren’t getting many quality at-bats for the previous couple of weeks, because the Dodgers had averaged two runs a game in their eight games coming into Monday, and that was mostly with Puig and Ramirez.

On Monday, they faced a retread pitcher, Edinson Volquez, but a retread pitcher who had won his past four decisions and was coming off a complete-game victory against the San Francisco Giants, the team the Dodgers are jockeying with for NL West supremacy.

The Dodgers put together a grinders attack against Volquez. They still haven’t homered in nine games -- one of their longest powerless stretches in 20 years -- but they had 12 hits Monday, eight of them singles and a double off an infielder’s glove.

Mainly, they got a strong seven innings from Hyun-Jin Ryu (11-5).

Ryu looms large now that the Dodgers have little idea what to expect from Haren or Beckett and aren't sure they want to deal their few elite prospects for a front-line starter.

Last year, the Dodgers learned they can rely on Ryu in the thinner air of pennant races and playoff games. They need him now more than ever. You can go far in the playoffs with two dominant starters in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, but it’s harder to manage two-and-a-half months that way.

“Every game means a lot more now,” Ryu said through his interpreter. “As a starter, my role is to go out there and give my team a chance to win. If I can go out there for six or seven innings and not give up too many runs, I’ll be pretty happy with that.”

So will the Dodgers, though “too many runs” is a sliding scale these days.