Dodgers make climb, but more awaits

PHOENIX -- Yasiel Puig lay splayed on the gray clubhouse carpet, his arms and legs outstretched, goggles around his head and alcohol seeping from his uniform. He was taking a short break from the raucous bobbing and booze-spraying in the middle of the room.

Team president Stan Kasten, who admits he "worries about everything," was tucked comfortably away in a corner of the clubhouse discussing the resiliency of a team that made one of the most dramatic U-turns in sports history.

Manager Don Mattingly looked relaxed for the first time in about a month. Instead of grinding his jaw talking to the media, he wore a gentle smile.

Thursday's clinching of the National League West title for the Dodgers was as much about relief as it was about jubilation. This was a team that had spent more lavishly than any team ever had and then saw it all slip to the brink of collapse. It was the joy of what came next, redemption, that permeated all the whooping and beer-spraying in that room.

It's not easy winning as the favorite. It's even harder when you're the favorite who's in last place.

"It's tough being expected to win every game and to go box-to-wire and never fall," general manager Ned Colletti said.

After the Dodgers traded for all those well-paid players from Miami and Boston last August, then flubbed the remainder of that playoff race, people started wondering what was missing.

When San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt made an off-hand crack about the Dodgers at an offseason Fanfest event in San Francisco, saying, "You can't buy team chemistry," it became the thing going into the 2013 season.

Were the Dodgers paying all that money, more than $200 million of it, for a band of talented mercenaries, guys who would lose interest or turn on one another if the project wasn't working?

That question was answered partially in June, when the team stuck together and began its long climb. It was answered definitively Thursday.

"Team chemistry is Skip Schumaker, Jerry Hairston Jr., Nick Punto, Juan Uribe, guys like that," said veteran second baseman Mark Ellis. "That's what team chemistry is. That's why Skip has two rings."

The moment was there, sooner than anyone thought. Bodies were going down on a weekly basis, the Dodgers started losing games, and by mid-May most people seemed to be pretty sure they were going to fire manager Don Mattingly.

They didn't, but well into June, it hadn't gotten much better. They were in last place, 12 games under .500. A funny thing happened. Kasten didn't pull the trigger on firing Mattingly and Mattingly's steady personality -- and the loyalty of his coaches -- had a calming effect on the team. By doing very little, they allowed very much to develop.

"We put a great team together with a big payroll and huge expectations," Mattingly said. "A lot of times that falls apart. It had a chance to fall apart during the season, I thought."

The struggles, even the brawls with their division rivals, seemed to bring them closer.

Whatever frictions arose in the clubhouse stayed inside the team and, presumably, were worked out over time. Injured players got time to heal and then came back. Step by step, they rebuilt. Then, after a while, they repaved, rolling over opponents in series after series.

Puig arrived on June 3, Hanley Ramirez one day later, and suddenly the Dodgers were hitting. They could always pitch. When both facets were working in tandem, the Dodgers became, arguably, the most dangerous team in baseball.

They have gone 58-23 since June 21 and that includes a soft stretch these past two weeks when injuries cropped up again and the Dodgers seemed a little overanxious to clinch it quickly.

If they can heal quickly -- their next meaningful game is Oct. 3 -- they still might be baseball's most dangerous team entering the postseason. They have more time than any other team to prepare for the playoffs. In fact, this is the earliest a Los Angeles Dodgers team has ever clinched a playoff berth. Clayton Kershaw, who could be about to win his second Cy Young at 25 years old, is lined up to start Game 1. Zack Greinke, who already has a Cy Young and will get some votes this year, will pitch Game 2.

Ramirez looks like the scariest hitter on the planet when he's healthy, and he says he's not worried about the nerve irritation in his back that has cost him playing time sporadically for over a week. God knows how much damage Puig could do. No stage yet has seemed too grand for his talents.

The team has also added veterans who could play key auxiliary roles. Michael Young has thrived in a new role, as a pinch hitter and spot starter. Brian Wilson lately has looked nearly as effective as he was closing World Series games for the Giants in 2010.

They have a closer, Kenley Jansen, who has been practically unhittable since he took over the job and showed he might have the right temperament for pitching in the playoffs when he mowed down the middle of the Diamondbacks order 1-2-3 in the ninth inning of the closeout game.

"I treated this like it's the postseason, like I had to get ready," Jansen said. "I just came in locked in. I already know the ball's going to be in my hand and I've got to be ready. That felt awesome."

Young has reached two World Series. He's a believer.

"We have everything we need to have a deep postseason run," Young said. "The biggest thing is making sure we're healthy when we get there. Then, we can just let it [rip] when we get there."