LOS ANGELES -- It won't come easy for Joe Torre in Los Angeles. He lost Rafael Furcal over a month ago when Furcal was playing like the best shortstop in the majors and has had to replace him in the Dodgers' lineup with a group of backups that has collectively hit .150.
None of the members of the Dodgers' starting rotation is above .500, and Torre's young lineup has hit the second-fewest home runs in the National League and the second-fewest doubles. Some of those young Dodgers have shown troubling glimpses of being the kind of underachieving, self-entitled players that so often deflate high expectations, a bad sign for a club so depending on its young core of regular players. And for good measure, it looked six weeks ago like Arizona would wrap up the NL West by July 4.
Slowly but surely, however, Torre has started to see some of the dark clouds starting to part. After two straight victories, a win tonight on ESPN's Sunday Night Game of the Week will mean the Dodgers have taken the series from the Cubs, who swept the Dodgers at Wrigley Field two weeks ago and are tied with the Angels for the best record in the majors.
What has changed for the Dodgers? They have started to see some of the starting pitching they had anticipated: Derek Lowe has had four straight impressive starts and he seems to have turned around his poor start. Japanese rookie Hiroki Kuroda pitched the best game of the Dodgers' season on Friday night, an overpowering, complete-game shutout of the Cubs, who lead the NL in runs scored. Chad Billingsley, after a disappointing series of early starts, has also been getting better and better.
Furcal seems to have finally turned the corner in his recovery from his back injury and is projected to return on June 17. But until he returns the Dodgers upgraded their backup shortstop situation this weekend, with the acquisition of Angel Berroa, a former American League Rookie of the Year.
And maybe most importantly, Torre has started seeing some signs that his young players are beginning to hear his message, especially after their win on Saturday in which they hung in against the Cubs and their ace, Carlos Zambrano, for six innings and then broke the game open with a five-run seventh-inning.
"We've talked since the first day of spring training about having the grinder mentality and be able to do what we need to do if we expect to be in contention in September," Torre said. "There are going to be some games that you really can't explain. And there are going to be mistakes, some things will go wrong. But you have to keep competing. And you have to just say you want to win. Winning isn't easy. You have to keep going out there and pay the price."
Torre specifically was pleased on Saturday with the three-run homer hit by Matt Kemp that broke open the game in the seventh. Kemp is one of those important, talented young Dodgers players who has been underwhelming for much of this season. Kemp came to bat in the seventh inning on Saturday with three hits in his previous 19 at-bats, and has been openly showing immature frustration both at the plate and in his body language on the field.
"Maybe today, he started to finally realize that being frustrated doesn't help, it doesn't get you anywhere in this game," Torre said. "People will have slumps as long as the game is played. But [you] have to keep digging in like he showed he can do today. With what he came back from to do what he did in the [seventh], sure, that can certainly be a growing-up situation."
Since the beginning of the season when Torre without hesitation would often sit such highly-touted Dodgers as Kemp and Andre Ethier, Torre underscored his intention to start changing a culture where the top young Dodgers have been hearing they were untouchables for a while. With those moves he was basically sending a message through his lineup and through the work of his coaches, that no one was entitled to playing time or to taking the game for granted.
"I think we're starting to learn how good we can be if we don't worry about some of the frustrations and instead focus on that next at-bat, that next inning of pitching," Torre said. "We're not a team that can just roll out the lineup and expect to win.
"But we found out in those three losses in Chicago, three games in which we only scored one run in each of them, that we can play with Chicago, that we could have won every game of that series by putting the ball in play in some key situations, by moving up a runner, little things that we have not always been doing. I see us focusing on those things a lot better this weekend. I've seen some good signs.
"But we have to show we can do that every night and that's something we still
have not proved we can do yet."
While the Dodgers' lineup is looking toward Furcal's return as a spark, the pitching staff could get a big spark if tonight's starter Brad Penny could start resembling the pitcher who won 16 games in each of the last two seasons. He's winless since May 2, but in his last start he had his best velocity in weeks and gave the Dodgers a chance to win for the first time in six starts.
The Cubs, meanwhile, will try to avoid losing more than two games in a row for the first time all season. Jason Marquis, who has a tenuous hold on the fifth starter's spot, will pitch for Chicago, whose schedule is a touch stretch that has them playing 23 of 32 games away from Wrigley Field, where they have 26-8 record.
Peter Pascarelli is the lead researcher for "Sunday Night Baseball." He will preview each Sunday night game all season long. He is also co-host of the Baseball Today podcast, which runs Monday through Friday on ESPN.com.