The Dodgers are ready for a new test

For most of the 2012 season, fans and media have kept one eye on the Los Angeles Dodgers as they’ve maintained ownership of the National League West, and another eye on the sky for fear of falling debris. It’s often hard to understand just how this team has been winning.

The Dodgers have been down key players (none more prominent than Matt Kemp), and even at full strength, it’s easy to question if they’ve got the horses to lead a fairly weak division. They’ve had us asking over and over, “Seriously, how do these guys keep winning?”

But on the heels of Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the Angels, it feels like water is threatening to seek its own level. The Blue have lost seven of their past 10 games. In the previous series against the Oakland A’s (not exactly a powerhouse foe), they managed a total of two runs over three games. Against the Los Angeles Angels, the bats were livelier, but still not enough to keep pace with the Halos.

Suddenly, the storyline has changed. Before, games were a test to keep piling up wins under unlikely circumstances. But for the first time, their ability to pick themselves up when the chips are down has been called into question.

But this squad is unafraid of that challenge; the Dodgers don’t view the task as insurmountable.

“It’s one of those things right now,” Dodgers outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. said after the game. “Before, we weren’t creating opportunities in Oakland. This series, we created the opportunities, we just weren’t able to capitalize on it. But we’re progressing back to the team that we were, for the most part, the first half. It’s just a matter of keep creating those opportunities. Eventually you’re gonna be able to get those guys in.

“Just keep plugging away. It’s a long season. We haven’t really gone through a rut. This is our first real struggle of the season. We’ll persevere and try to keep pushing.”

“It’s what we signed up for,” added James Loney. “Play 162 games. Making the playoffs, that’s the biggest picture. We don’t really care how many games we lose. [Laughs] Right? Winning the World Series is the main thing, so whatever you can do.”

And assuming the Dodgers come out smiling from the other side of this skid, there are theoretical benefits to having lived through it. Chemistry and unity are built through having conquered rough patches, and this period without Kemp hasn’t been the disaster conventional wisdom would logically expect. Now the team is up against obstacles, and with them comes the wisdom gained from having beaten them.

Obviously, at the professional level, “moral victories” and “learning lessons” come in direct conflict with the real world and the standings. As Matt Treanor put it, “I’m not looking for ‘character builder’ any part of this season.” Winning is always preferable to losing. Period. But similar to how LeBron James insists his NBA Finals-winning form of 2012 would never have been discovered without first experiencing his NBA Finals struggles of 2011, Gwynn sees the value in the Dodgers suddenly having their feet held to the fire at an inopportune time.

“I think most teams that end up winning the division at some point end up having to be tested,” Gwynn said. “I think it makes them a better team at the end of the year. Hopefully, we’ll be one of those teams that can say that in September.

“Even with Matt out the first time, we didn’t really go through any struggles. With him out now, we’re going through a little rut. Our character will be built, whether we can come off of this and get back to how we were playing, or we’re gonna fold the tent. And I doubt with the personalities on this ballclub and our coaching staff, anybody’s gonna fold it in right now.”