L.A. rides momentum into long stretch

LOS ANGELES -- The way to look at this upcoming stretch on the Dodgers' schedule probably depends on, well, the way you're looking at it. If you're glancing at that blue-and-white checkerboard attached magnetically to your refrigerator, you see a big block of games, 16 of them, without an off-day.

But if you're a veteran ballplayer who has been through the wars, you're probably looking at it and seeing that you have the day off on Monday and a game in Chicago against the Cubs on Tuesday night.

Whatever happens after that will happen after that.

"It doesn't matter," Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake said. "It's just the season. You don't think about it too much. We just play baseball every day."

Still, this 16-games stretch isn't as daunting as it might appear.

Once this six-game trip to Chicago and Colorado is over, the final 10 of those games will all be at home, where the Dodgers are 15-8 this season. And once that next off-day finally does come on June 10, it will be followed by three more home games against the Angels on this longest homestand of the year.

The Dodgers also could be getting reinforcements for the journey. Shortstop, leadoff man and offensive catalyst Rafael Furcal is expected back from the disabled list in time for the first game after an absence of almost a month. And right fielder and National League MVP candidate Andre Ethier is expected to return sooner than originally thought after he broke a bone in his right pinky. He could be back by the end of the trip.

But most important, the Dodgers are riding a good bit of momentum. They have won 17 of their last 22 games, and the pitchers who make up the core of their starting rotation -- Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda and rookie John Ely -- have combined for 10 consecutive quality starts.
So the Dodgers can accomplish a lot during the next three weeks.

"I really want to win them all,'' Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "That is the way we need to go about these things. If we're going to play all those games, I'm pretty comfortable about the way we're playing. Hopefully, we will have as good a road trip as the last one (a 6-0 romp through Arizona and San Diego).

"We're going on the road with a lot of confidence."

Although the Dodgers remain near the top of the major leagues in batting average (.277), runs scored (199) and on-base percentage (.347), their recent resurgence has been the result of quality pitching -- mostly from the starters but also from a bullpen that has benefited from no longer being overworked.

So, are these much-maligned starters pitching above their heads, or have they suddenly blossomed into one of the league's best staffs?
Before losing to Detroit on Sunday, the Dodgers had won 12 of their previous 13 games. That included a nine-game winning streak, eight of which came at the expense of Arizona, San Diego and Houston. Now, it's true that the Padres are in first place in the N.L. West, but it's also true that they aren't a very good offensive team. As for the Diamondbacks and Astros, well, there is a reason they are both last in their respective divisions.

On the other hand, though, the Dodgers took two of three over the weekend from Detroit, a solid team with one of the more fearsome lineups from the bigger, badder American League. In the Dodgers' two victories, Billingsley and Ely combined to hold the Tigers to three runs over 13 innings. Even in the game the Dodgers lost on Sunday, Kuroda rebounded from a rough first inning to shut out the Tigers on three hits over the next five.

Billingsley and Kershaw have been dramatically different during the past few weeks, turning in solid and at times dominating performances. And while Ely hasn't weathered any major storms yet, he has been so good in four of his last five major league starts that there is an undeniable sense of confidence when he pitches.

And Kuroda, despite Sunday's loss, has been pretty good all year.

Ronald Belisario and Ramon Troncoso are suddenly struggling but the bullpen as a whole has begun to resemble its 2009 model. Jonathan Broxton, who had so few save chances early in the season, has had so many lately that Torre declared him off-limits for Sunday's game because he had saved each of the previous three.

If the strong pitching continues, along with the season-long offensive production, this might actually be (dare we say it?) a really good team.
At least good enough to withstand 16 games in 16 days.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.