PHOENIX — It is impossible to define exactly when the NL West began its complete 180 from in the Diamondbacks’ control to in that of the Dodgers. The season is too long. The factors too numerous.
But June 11 might be a place to start.
The benches-cleaning brawl between the D-backs and Dodgers that night seemed to change the complexion of the division, the relationship between the two teams and, well, everything.
The Dodgers’ recovery has included personnel infusions. Yasiel Puig’s promotion from the minor leagues June 3 obviously helped, as did the return of Zack Greinke from a five-week stay on the disabled list following his fight with Carlos Quentin on April 11. Puig and the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez are the top candidates for the NL Rookie of the Year award.
Hanley Ramirez has been even more productive than Puig since returning from the disabled list for good June 4, and Adrian Gonzalez is having the type of season reminiscent of his time in San Diego.
Still, when Ian Kennedy hit Puig in the sixth inning and Greinke in the seventh to trigger the full-scale fight June 11, it was almost as if a stodgy millionaire had finally noticed the bank was on fire.
Kennedy’s retaliation against Greinke after Greinke hit Miguel Montero in the top of the seventh inning was intentional, the type of baseball that old-schoolers love. But it was also ill-timed. The ensuing 10-day suspension took Kennedy out of the rotation at a time when the D-backs already were down a man, jumbling the staff even more.
The Dodgers took it from there. They were in last place in the division and 8 1/2 games back of the first-place Diamondbacks after the D-backs pulled out a come-from-behind victory in the first game of the series June 10, but the Dodgers mounted a late-inning comeback of their own to win the night Puig and Greinke were hit. While it took another fortnight to completely reverse the momentum, the Dodgers have been the best team in the National League since.
The D-backs’ lead was down to four games by July 1, as everyone in the division played poorly enough to bring the Dodgers back into the race. It was 2 1/2 games by the All-Star break. The Dodgers kept coming, claiming first place in the division for the first time July 23, and they have rolled through the league since, their three straight weekend losses in Cincinnati notwithstanding.
Manager Don Mattingly, who some believed was another bad week from losing his job in early June, has felt the full turnaround becoming a top candidate for the NL Manager of the Year along with the Pirates’ Clint Hurdle, the Cardinals’ Mike Matheny and the Braves’ Fredi Gonzalez.
The Dodgers are 55-23 since June 11 and 52-17 since June 22, when they bottomed out, 9 1/2 games behind the D-backs. That kind of run (.754 winning percentage) has not been seen over a full season since Cleveland went 111-43 (.721) in 1952, when its winning percentage was the best in baseball since 1909.
The series reversal has been just as severe. The D-backs had mostly had their way with the Dodgers since the start of the 2011 season, going 29-16 after winning the first three series this season. They had lost only three of the previous 15 series before Dodgers swept a three-game series at Chase Field from July 8-10, the first meeting after the brawl. The Dodgers took the first two games easily, winning 6-1 in both games behind Greinke and new starter Ricky Nolasco, and they took advantage of a ninth-inning blown save to force extra innings and win the final game 7-5 in 14 innings.
With Nolasco adding more stability to a rotation topped by Cy Young favorite Clayton Kershaw and Greinke, the Dodgers have received the kind of starting pitching common to a contender. Their starters have the best ERA in the majors, 3.08. At the same time, their shaky bullpen has been among the best in baseball since Kenley Jansen took over as closer, coinciding exactly with the D-backs’ June visit. The Dodgers have 18 blown saves for the season but only two since July 1.
The D-backs’ rotation, meanwhile, was compromised by the loss of Brandon McCarthy for nine weeks and Trevor Cahill for almost seven, and the D-backs now rank 10th in the NL with a 4.10 ERA, a run a game worse than that of the Dodgers. The bullpen leads the majors with 27 saves, although it has been better since Brad Ziegler took over as closer. Those are the two numbers a team built to win with pitching and defense cannot abide.
It is impossible to say June 11 was the defining point of both teams’ seasons, but a lot has changed since then, and not much of it good for the Diamondbacks.