Dodgers know the comeback script

LOS ANGELES -- Somewhere in the middle of the summer, as the Los Angeles Dodgers were winning games like the rest of baseball wasn't even trying, a colleague wondered aloud how differently their historic run would have gone over if it had come at the beginning of the season.

If, say, the Dodgers and their National League-record $220 million payroll had begun the year 42-8 instead of waiting until after the All-Star break to connect the dots?

Instead of being a great story of a team rallying behind their embattled but well-respected manager and an exciting rookie bringing a spark to a previously listless lineup, the narrative would have been about deep-pocketed new owners trying to buy a World Series.

Joy would have been jealousy.

Excitement would have been envy.

Heck, Yasiel Puig might still be in Double-A if things had played out in reverse.

But of course things played out exactly as they did, and the Dodgers became exactly what they appear to be through the first three games of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals -- a group that thrives on the comeback.

A team that just might need to feel its back up against the proverbial wall in order to play with the kind of urgency and emotion needed to get the most out of all that talent and live up to the enormous expectations that accompany it.

"It's turning into a really tough-minded team," second baseman Mark Ellis said. "Early on in the year, we weren't as tough mentally as we probably should've been."

The stage should always be enough. The stakes shouldn't have to be raised. But some teams just seem to need build mountains to climb over.

And so, just as they did during the season, the Dodgers began this series with a considerable talent advantage, squandered it early, then woke up just in time to make a run at something special with an emotional 3-0 win over the Cardinals in Game 3 Monday night at Dodger Stadium.

"We knew we were so close in St. Louis," catcher A.J. Ellis said of the first two games of the series, where the Dodgers lost 3-2 in 13 innings and 1-0 despite a stellar six innings from ace Clayton Kershaw.

"We didn't feel like we were being outplayed or being blown out. We left St. Louis pretty disappointed and frustrated that we didn't at least get a split. With the way Zack [Greinke] and Clayton threw the ball, it's on us as position players."

If that sounds like any one of the hundreds of quotes you read from Dodgers players as the team scuffled to a 22-28 start in its first 50 games of the year, it's because the first two games of this series felt a lot like that miserable stretch of spring.

The difference now is that they have the confidence of having done this before.

"There's nothing that's going to rattle this team, after what we've been through," A.J. Ellis said. "We've been through injuries, the threat of our manager being fired, poor play and [the thoughts like] 'Are they going to trade some of our guys at the deadline if we keep playing this way?'

"But a switch was flipped. We were able to turn it around. We got healthy. We got Yasiel in the lineup. We got Zack back [from a broken collarbone] and next thing you know we were rolling and we were in the playoffs."

This may end up being a one-game blip, of course. The Dodgers could lose Game 4 Tuesday night and be down 3-1. But seven-game series tend to reveal exactly who a team is. Flaws are exposed. Character is revealed. All the things a team has become over the course of a season have a way of playing out as the series goes on.

This season the Dodgers became a comeback story. Monday they set the stage for another one. They rallied around their manager, sprang to life because of Puig, learned to rely -- but not depend -- on the consistency of Adrian Gonzalez, and came together around the sheer talent and toughness of Hanley Ramirez.

It's hard to say whether it was the pressure of the moment that finally compelled this kind of effort. It's impossible to say whether it will continue.

But things have a way of falling into place when you start retracing the steps that made you successful in the first place.

For Puig that meant, well, being Puig.

After trying entirely too hard during the first two games, he got back to trying to have fun.

All those voices in his ear telling him to think things through before acting on his instincts, started telling him to stop thinking so much.

"In St. Louis it was obvious that I wasn't having quite as much fun as I was really focused on trying to get a hit," Puig said. "Coming back to Los Angeles, I was able to get back to really having fun. That's all it really is for me."

That push-pull has been the Dodgers' challenge with Puig all season. How to refine him, without breaking the spirit that makes him so great in the first place. It hasn't been solved and it won't any time soon.

But there is a benefit in having been there before and come through it.

The pressure of living up to expectations becomes an inspiration, not a burden.

"We're expected to win and that's why people like playing here. That's how it should be," Mark Ellis said. "If you go into spring training with a team and you're not even supposed to make the playoffs, that's miserable. That [pressure] is something we all appreciate here and have learned to embrace."