It wasn't all that long ago -- two Sundays ago, actually -- when it felt as if everyone was worried about the Los Angeles Dodgers. They were losing, they were injured, and the landscape of the National League West made it seem as if the Dodgers, poised to challenge the wins record at the onset of 2021, could not possibly run away with another division title.
Now, suddenly, the Dodgers are quietly dominant again, even with a lineup that isn't close to full strength.
They were without four starting position players on Sunday -- including Mookie Betts, who was scratched with soreness in a left shoulder that has given him trouble for about a week -- and still won their seventh straight. The Dodgers went on the road to sweep a surprising San Francisco Giants team that began the weekend with the best record in the sport, capturing the finale by an 11-5 score. A 13-2 start that was followed by a 5-15 stretch has been followed by another dominant run, with 11 wins in a span of 12 games. Given a comparable surge by the division-rival San Diego Padres, it's a stretch the Dodgers have desperately needed.
"Even when we're not at full strength, we have a lot of really, really, really good players, and our starting pitching has been unbelievable as well, our bullpen's been really good, and our at-bats have been super competitive, up and down through the lineup," Dodgers middle infielder Gavin Lux said. "I think it's no secret that we have a lot of depth and we're all kind of rolling right now. I think we just went through a funky stretch there where we all kind of slumped, and now obviously we're picking back up where we left off early in the year."
Lux's emergence has been a major reason. When Corey Seager fractured his right hand on May 15, an injury that could keep him out until after the All-Star break, it meant Lux would slide over from second base to shortstop, his natural position but also a more demanding one.
He has handled it competently, but more importantly, his bat has come alive. Lux, 23, followed a .179/.213/.250 April with a .375/.500/.875 line in May. He faced Anthony DeSclafani on Sunday, a man who boasted a 2.03 ERA through his first 53 1/3 innings this season, and hit his second grand slam in five days, giving the Dodgers a 10-0 lead before the end of the third inning.
Lux's surge, a product of getting more in sync with his mechanics, has helped an offense that is without Seager and Cody Bellinger and hasn't received enough production from the likes of Betts and Justin Turner.
But it's the starting pitching that continues to carry the Dodgers.
Julio Urias was perfect through five innings on Sunday and allowed just two runs over six innings, walking none and striking out 10 -- one day after Walker Buehler pitched seven innings of one-run ball and two days after Trevor Bauer allowed an unearned run in 6 2/3 innings.
Baseball's three best starting rotation ERAs currently reside in the NL West. The Dodgers' group ranks second, trailing only the Padres, while contributing the most innings per start -- even though Dustin May is out for the year, David Price is pitching out of the bullpen and Tony Gonsolin is still working his way back. Bauer, Buehler and Clayton Kershaw have been as effective as one would expect, but Urias' dominance in his first full season as a major league starter -- 3.04 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 8.57 strikeout-to-walk ratio -- has further elevated the group.
"He just understands that he's an elite pitcher," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of Urias, the former 19-year-old phenom who has pitched in a hybrid role these past two years. "When you're looking around at our starters, the bar is high. He's right there with those other guys, and he shows it every time he's out on the mound."
The Dodgers trail the Padres -- and only the Padres -- by one game and three runs for the major league lead in winning percentage and run differential, further evidence that their burgeoning rivalry might persist throughout the season. One weekend before the Dodgers swept the Giants, the Padres swept the St. Louis Cardinals with Fernando Tatis Jr., Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers and Jurickson Profar all on the injured list for COVID-19-related reasons.
The Padres, bolstered by a red-hot Tatis, have won nine in a row and 12 of their past 13 as they embark on a three-city road trip in which they'll play the Milwaukee Brewers, Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs. The Dodgers are off on Monday before wrapping up their road trip with two games against the Astros and returning to L.A. for a seven-game homestand against the Giants and Cardinals.
Over the past two weeks, the Dodgers have a 2.08 ERA but only a .785 OPS. Their offense has been producing timely hits but hasn't necessarily caught fire. And that's what makes it possible the Dodgers' best baseball remains in front of them. Bellinger, out since April 5 with a hairline fracture in his leg, could return next weekend. Shortly thereafter, Pollock, nursing a hamstring injury, should join him.
"It seemed as if baseball was against us for a bit," Urias said in Spanish, "but now it's coming back in our favor."