Dodgers' abrupt personality change is paying off

Corey Seager steals second in the Dodgers' 5-1 victory against the Padres Sunday. A change in offensive style has fueled the Dodgers latest hot streak. Jake Roth/USA TODAY Sports

SAN DIEGO -- For better or for worse, the narrative of the Los Angeles Dodgers' 2015 season will draw heavily from one off-the-cuff remark made by Clayton Kershaw on Aug. 23 in Houston.

After another frustrating loss in which he sweated through eight dominant innings only to watch the bullpen blow it again, Kershaw said, “I hope we’re panicking a little bit. I think panic’s a good thing to a certain extent.”

He would clarify his comment a bit, subbing “sense of urgency” for “panic,” and he would later say he didn’t put much stock in the remark. But since Kershaw spoke, the Dodgers have ripped off their hottest streak of the season, going 11-2 and turning a 1.5-game lead into a 7.5-game lead.

They kept that lead intact with a 5-1 win over the San Diego Padres at Petco Park on Sunday afternoon.

What, exactly, have the Dodgers done to play more urgently? They’ve pitched better, certainly. Kershaw and Zack Greinke have kept on chugging away through brilliant seasons, and the back end of the rotation and the bullpen have pitched more consistently of late.

But the biggest difference has been a more-diverse offensive attack, one which doesn’t look quite as inert when the Dodgers aren’t hitting home runs. They went from being the worst base-running team in the National League to one that can create offense even when its hitters aren’t locked in. What’s so eye-opening is how abrupt the change was. The Dodgers went from looking like one of those early 2000s Moneyball teams to looking like Mike Scioscia’s Los Angeles Angels, in the Chone Figgins years, seemingly overnight.

“For a pitcher trying to execute a pitch, now you’ve got guys running bases or, when the ball’s in play, taking extra bases. It really makes the guys constantly have to be on their toes and you open up plays and mistakes,” Andre Ethier said. “Guys know they have to make a perfect throw or a perfect pitch.”

On Sunday, their biggest hit was a three-hopper that the pitcher picked up by the first-base line and fired into the right-field corner, scoring three runs. That inning was fueled by a hit batsman, an infield hit and a fielder’s choice. The Dodgers scored off Andrew Cashner in the first inning without a base hit. They stole three more bases and, aside from Jimmy Rollins' boneheaded attempt to steal third with two outs in the fifth (with the cleanup hitter batting), they ran with confidence and smarts.

A team that had done more harm than good on the bases until the end of August has been successful in 16 of its past 17 stolen-base attempts. No other team in the majors has stolen anywhere near as many bases since Aug. 29. Maybe they just turned it on when they had to, as the playoffs beckon. They certainly look like a team better able to beat ace-level pitchers now than they did before this uptick in base running.

Once the playoffs begin, you face more aces than you do mid-rotation types.

The Dodgers had a hitters’ meeting in which the focus was taking intelligent base-running risks shortly before this hot streak began back in Oakland.

“It’s all about outs and bases,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “If you’re giving up outs on the bases, you only have 27, so if we’re just throwing outs away by running into outs and making bad decisions, it changes your chances. Like we saw in the first game of this series, every out is big. You don’t know which out is going cost you.”

The Dodgers lead the National League with 162 home runs even though they don’t really look like a slugging team. They are still last in the league in both stolen bases (71) and stolen base percentage (61 percent), even though it hasn’t looked that way lately. If they’re switching personalities late in the season, it might seem a little jarring, but it’s hard to argue with the results.