On pace for 110 wins, is this finally the Dodgers' year?

LOS ANGELES -- Perhaps, in a season that can stretch so long and can prove so arduous, there is, in fact, something to be gleaned from the beginning. The Los Angeles Dodgers started their 2018 campaign on the wrong end of back-to-back shutouts, marking the first time in 50 years that the team had gone scoreless through its first two games. In 2019, the Dodgers introduced themselves with eight home runs by six different players, a record for Opening Day. After it was over, the second baseman, Enrique Hernandez, noted that this year's team didn't dwell as much as last year's team. Getting over the second World Series loss, he suggested, proved a lot easier than getting over the first one.

Two months, four weeks and one day later, it seems as if Hernandez might have been on to something. The Dodgers reached the halfway point of their regular season with 55 wins, 12 more than what last year's group compiled through the first 81 games. Their .679 winning percentage is the best in the majors; their 13-game divisional cushion is larger than any other team's by a wide margin. They're a dominant force in every area, all but certain to capture a seventh consecutive National League West title.

"We're as good as we want to be," Dodgers starting pitcher Rich Hill said -- and maybe that's part of the point.

Hill and several of his teammates will readily admit to being caught flat-footed when last season began. The Dodgers were coming off an emotionally draining loss to the Houston Astros in seven World Series games and weren't quite sure how to move on from it. Spring training, Hill said, became "a big feeling-out process." They eased into it slowly, then approached the ensuing season as if another pennant were their divine right.

"Going through the motions is not the right word, but there was probably a built-in assumption that we would get back and then we realized that it's not that easy -- that there's a lot of good teams out there and you have to continue to play," Dodgers longtime ace Clayton Kershaw said. "I think after last year, we maybe came in determined to not get off to that slow start again. There's probably something to that."

Here's the thing about that 2018 season, in which the Dodgers fell as low as 10 games below .500 on May 16: They still reached their ultimate destination, even if it required a frantic surge and an extra regular-season contest. They advanced all the way to the World Series again, this time losing in five games to the Boston Red Sox.

No matter what the Dodgers accomplish this season -- no matter how many records they break, or how many awards they win, or how many stirring walk-offs they produce -- their success will once again hinge on the random acts that shape Octobers. On the ill-timed slump or the hot relief pitcher or the late-game decision. It's a thought that can plague the mind if one lets it, but these Dodgers have not. They're enjoying the moment, ever-present, and it seems to be their greatest asset.

"That's been a three-year, four-year process -- to be in the moment," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "We understand the ultimate goal, but we also realize that there's nothing we can do about the end of October right now. That's the hardest thing to do -- to get talented teams and players to just live in the moment."

Roberts sees an entire team embodying Kershaw's unwavering focus. He sees a starting rotation that feels an inherent responsibility to pitch deep into games. He sees an offense that is no longer waiting around to exert its will on opponents. He sees a group of players who are thoroughly enjoying one another, unconcerned by what might await them.

"Whatever happened these last two years happened," Hernandez said. "It's a very long season, and if you don't find joy and excitement in playing really good baseball at such a high level the way we're doing it right now, then you're not really enjoying what you do for a living."

The Dodgers lead the NL in OPS and ERA and lead the majors -- by a lot -- in defensive runs saved. Their two big offseason acquisitions, center fielder A.J. Pollock and late-inning reliever Joe Kelly, have either been ineffective or injured or both, yet the team is still pacing the sport in run differential.

Cody Bellinger is the MVP favorite and Hyun-Jin Ryu is the Cy Young favorite. Kershaw and Justin Turner, the two veteran leaders, have held steady. Walker Buehler and Max Muncy are matching the success of last year's breakout seasons. Joc Pederson, on pace for 40 home runs, and Kenley Jansen, on pace for 40 saves, are deserving All-Stars in their own right. Alex Verdugo, whose infectious energy has altered the team's dynamic, should earn Rookie of the Year consideration.

Over the weekend, Verdugo became the second of three consecutive Dodgers rookies to hit a walk-off home run, an unprecedented feat. On Monday, the Dodgers had a six-game winning streak snapped and lost a game by more than two runs for the first time all month. On Tuesday, the last game of their first half, they won on the strength of their bullpen -- their only perceived weakness so far.

Two years ago, any number of events could have swayed the World Series in the Dodgers' favor. Last year's World Series didn't necessarily justify that logic.

It quickened the grieving process.

"I think that once you get there, and you lose in Game 7, that carryover or hangover was real," Roberts said. "But when you lose in five, to a team that was really, for me, at that point in time, better, guys were more pissed off instead of feeling sorry for themselves."

That's the word that keeps being used inside the Dodgers' clubhouse -- "pissed."

"Everybody was upset about the way the season ended," Hill said, "but I think we were more upset about playing Game 163."

The Dodgers believed -- rightfully -- that they were better than that one-game tiebreaker. This year, they haven't wasted any time showing it. They won at least 55 of their first 81 games for the fifth time in franchise history. (Three of the other four teams that did it went on to reach the World Series.) And they're on track to be one of only five teams in the divisional era (dating to 1969) to boast at least a 13-game division lead before the All-Star break, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau.

Only one team, the 1923 New York Yankees, lost back-to-back World Series and returned to win a third. The Dodgers, so far, have the makings of another.

"We have everything we would want, every piece you could need," Kershaw said, "and now it's a matter of continuing this pace and stringing together 11 in October."