LOS ANGELES -- Turns out the shadow of last year's historic 42-8 run is a little longer than some might have thought.
That stretch lifted the Los Angeles Dodgers out of the NL West basement into first place and all the national headlines, then eventually into the playoffs and very nearly the World Series. It also fueled expectations for 2014. When people wonder how well these Dodgers are capable of playing, imaginations are unquestionably stoked by the still-fresh memory of the greatest 50-game run since World War II.
That, combined with baseball's loftiest payroll and the completely appropriate belief inside the organization that the Dodgers ought to compete for their first title since 1988, creates not just an expectation of winning but a standard for how, as well.
The Dodgers entered Saturday's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates with a 29-27 record, 7 1/2 games behind the first-place San Francisco Giants. That's not good -- San Francisco's pitching is too solid for the Giants to fall off a cliff -- but it's not a disaster, certainly not before the calendar hits June. The simulations at Baseball Prospectus still land the Dodgers in the postseason 80 percent of the time. It's hard to believe they'll be a sub-.500 team at home all year. There isn't too much about L.A.'s situation that two hot weeks wouldn't help alleviate, in the standings and the team's collective psyche.
The Dodgers know they need to be better, and certainly they were in Saturday's 12-2 beatdown of the Pirates, but you wonder if they're fighting a perception of just how much better.
Take Matt Kemp. Before Saturday's game, most of the questions directed at manager Don Mattingly were about whether Kemp would ever again be an elite, MVP-level player. Reasonable enough, particularly given the $100 million Kemp will earn over the five seasons after this one, and the Dodgers would certainly love to see him bounce back to that degree. Except they don't need an MVP-level Kemp to make the playoffs. There's a lot of space between that guy and the one currently patrolling (however begrudgingly) left field. Garden-variety "good" would make a big difference. Approaching All-Star levels would be transformative.
Some hoped Hanley Ramirez might turn last year's momentum into a dominant 2014. Obviously, it hasn't happened yet, and while it would be nice, what the Dodgers really need right now is enough hitting from Ramirez to make his lack of defense a relative nonissue.
Both came up big Saturday.
Ramirez started things off for the Dodgers with what has been the rarest of birds, a two-out RBI. In this case, a single scoring Andre Ethier. Kemp followed with an RBI single of his own, scoring Ramirez and giving the Dodgers a 2-0 lead. Both were productive in L.A.'s four-run fourth inning. Ramirez delivered another RBI single, and Kemp brought him home with a sacrifice fly. He'd single again in the fifth.
Home runs and gap shots are great and necessary in the big picture -- Ramirez's pair of home runs was a welcome sight and the Dodgers will happily accept as many Drew Butera RBI triples as he can muster -- but not always required moment to moment. As a team, while papering Pittsburgh with six runs over the first three innings, the Dodgers notched only one extra-base hit. The Dodgers have plenty of sledgehammers on the roster but don't lose points for paper-cutting opponents to death.
Going forward, the Dodgers could use power numbers from Andre Ethier more like his May than his April. They need Juan Uribe to get, and stay, healthy. Same for A.J. Ellis. Not unrelated, they need to become more competent fielders. L.A.'s starting pitchers will always be there. The Dodgers have the means to spackle any bullpen cracks. Their problems are solvable if they don't fall into the trap of believing good play isn't good enough, that they're supposed to not just win but lay waste to the rest of baseball the way they did to the Pirates on Saturday.
Mattingly says he knows they can't think that way.
"That's just stuff on paper," Mattingly said. "I think we've got to get away from that. I mean, we've got to make [winning consistently] happen, and we're capable of having games like this and we're capable of running off games and winning games. I don't want to get away from that, and I don't mind the expectations at all.
"But the idea we're at this level," he said, holding his hand head-high, "and everyone else in baseball is at a different level? That's just not the way it is."
Cliche as it may be, Mattingly says it's a matter of narrowing focus to that day's game, playing it, and moving on to the next. Worry at the end of the season about the numbers.
It's something the Dodgers did particularly well last year, during ... well, you know.