Dodgers may be better than advertised

LOS ANGELES -- As it turns out, maybe it didn't have to be this way.

The Los Angeles Dodgers continued to pound that message home on Saturday, when Matt Kemp's third walkoff home run of the season gave them a 7-6, 11-inning victory over the Colorado Rockies before 35,537 at Dodger Stadium. It ran their winning streak to five and moved them to within seven games of .500, the closest they have been to the break-even mark in more than two months, all of which is fairly meaningless at this stage of a season that was long ago chalked up as a lost cause.

But contrary to what we were led to believe by everything we observed in the season's first half, perhaps it didn't have to be a lost cause.

Maybe these Dodgers, who have gotten solid starting pitching, outstanding relief pitching and pretty good defense all year, weren't done in by an overmatched, undermanned offense after all. Maybe they were done in by a perfectly capable offense that simply didn't play up to those capabilities.

Remember that maddening inability to score runs? Remember all those clutch situations that got away, all those runners who were stranded in scoring position? Remember all those one- and two-run losses that basically undermined the entire season?

Well, how about this: Over their past nine games, seven of which have been victories, the Dodgers have averaged 6.6 runs; in 24 games this month, the Dodgers have averaged 4.5 runs; and in 39 games since the All-Star break, the Dodgers have averaged 4.2 runs, up from a paltry 3.7 runs a game in the first half. In fact, in 39 second-half games, the Dodgers have scored more than five runs 15 times. In 92 first-half games, they did that 20 times.

So, what has been the difference?

"I think they're believing in each other," said Dave Hansen, who took over on July 20 as the team's primary hitting coach, after which the team's runs per game jumped from 3.6 to 4.4. "Hitting is contagious. They're feeding off Matt, and they're feeding off James [Loney]. They're believing in themselves, and they're not giving any at-bats away. They're battling through each at-bat and each pitcher."

Yes, they are feeding off Kemp, who on Friday night became the second player in Dodgers history to put up a 30-homer/30-steal season and still has a decent shot at 40/40, and they are feeding off the formerly slumping Loney, whose game-tying, solo shot off Rafael Betancourt in the bottom of the ninth left him hitting .381 in August.

But there is one other guy the Dodgers are feeding off, and he wasn't even here until the All-Star break. It didn't make much of a splash when general manager Ned Colletti picked up former Los Angeles Angels outfielder Juan Rivera from the Toronto Blue Jays on the morning of the All-Star Game for a player to be named or cash.

Or, more to the point, for a song.

Since then, Rivera, who was hitting a bland .243 in the American League, is at .311, with nine doubles, three homers and 22 RBIs in 35 games. With runners in scoring position and less than two outs, a situation in which the Dodgers have failed so often for so much of the season, Rivera is hitting .462 (6-for-13) with only one strikeout.

No matter where Rivera has hit in the order for the Dodgers, it has always been immediately behind Kemp, offering a degree of protection Kemp didn't have before Rivera's arrival. Since the break, Kemp is hitting 31 points higher (.344) than he was in the first half (.313).

"I think Juan has changed us a lot," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "That is a big bat in our lineup."

OK, so Rivera has had a positive impact. But is Rivera really an impact player? Does he make enough of a difference in this lineup that we can write off all that first-half flailing to the fact the Dodgers hadn't picked up Rivera yet? Is that the only reason the Dodgers (62-69) are tied with the Rockies for third place in the National League West, 11 games behind the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks, and have no realistic shot at reaching the playoffs?

I'm thinking not.

When examining what went wrong with this Dodgers offense, we can't discount that the biggest offseason addition, veteran infielder Juan Uribe, was fairly awful before he got hurt -- he hasn't played in more than a month because of a recurring left-hip strain -- and that the Dodgers actually have been a better offensive team without him. We also can't ignore the fact that former leadoff man Rafael Furcal, who before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals at the deadline probably was the team's most important offensive player, was having the worst offensive season of his career when he was dealt.

Another factor in the turnaround -- and this may be the biggest one -- is that this team suddenly has developed a degree of patience, and discipline, at the plate. It is a lesson former hitting coach Jeff Pentland never had much success in teaching. Whether Hansen is a better teacher or the players have just become more comfortable with the concept as a result of having some success isn't clear. But what is clear is that it's working, in a way that it never did for much of the season.

"We're getting hits and scoring runs," Kemp said. "But we're also making pitchers work. It is just about having a plan up there and having good at-bats. We can score in bunches, too. We got a bunch of runs in that [five-run sixth]."

And then, Kemp finished his thought with one, simple sentence.

"That is the team I remember," he said.

We can presume he was talking about 2008 and 2009, when the Dodgers rode, among other things, a strong offense to back-to-back division titles. But if this team is beginning to remind Kemp and others of those teams, well, maybe that is what this team was all along. Maybe it wasn't as severely gutted by Frank McCourt's money issues as we all assumed. Maybe this offense never was as bad as it portrayed itself to be for all those months.

And if all those things are true, then maybe, just maybe, this 2011 season didn't have to be such an unmitigated disaster after all. And if that is, indeed, the case, that makes the whole thing even harder to swallow.