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Dodgers on impressive May tear

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Jon Paul Morosi

Jon Paul Morosi is a National MLB Writer for FOXSports.com. He previously covered baseball for the Detroit Free Press and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He began his journalism career at the Bay City Times in his native Michigan. Follow him on Twitter.

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The Dodgers have a fifth-starter problem … just like virtually every team in baseball.

The Dodgers are going to be without their best hitter for several weeks … just like they were last year.

The Dodgers will feel pressure to trade for Cliff Lee or Roy Oswalt in July … just like the other contenders.

The Dodgers have a famous manager in the final year of his contract … just like the Yankees, Cardinals, Cubs and Braves.

So if the Dodgers have the same worries as every other club, then why has it become fashionable to tally their woes and declare that they have zero chance of making a third straight trip to the National League Championship Series?

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Don’t ignore the facts: This team leads the majors with 14 victories in May.

Well, there is the messy divorce between owners Frank and Jamie McCourt. Among the more recent developments: Frank has been ordered to pay Jamie a reported $225,000 per month in spousal support.

An August trial date looms, at which control of the club should be decided. The proceedings have had an obvious impact on the team’s payroll, despite statements to the contrary by Frank McCourt.

And if we won’t learn who is truly in charge until August, then how might the Dodgers add payroll to acquire Lee or Oswalt before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline?

The McCourt divorce is the biggest, saddest sideshow in baseball this year. Fortunately for the Dodgers, games aren’t won and lost in courtrooms. On the field, Joe Torre’s team has just as much talent as any other in the National League West. A third consecutive division title is very attainable.

The Dodgers might be flawed, but they are also the hottest team in baseball, with a 12-2 record over their last 14 games. They beat San Diego on Thursday to pull within one game of the division lead entering an interleague series against the Tigers (MLB on FOX, 7:10 p.m. ET, Saturday).

“We’ve pitched a lot better,” general manager Ned Colletti said Thursday. “We’ve kept games close. We’re playing better defensively – I think that’s a key part. We were struggling there early in the year, but we seemingly have that under control.”

The Dodgers are playing as if indifferent to the surrounding turbulence – the McCourt divorce, Torre’s potential departure after the season, Andre Ethier’s extended absence due to a broken pinkie finger on his right hand.

Even Manny Ramirez has been unavailable. He hurt the little toe on his left foot – a freak accident in the training room – and hasn’t started since Tuesday.

No one would confuse the Dodgers with the Rays, who have been superb in all facets of the game and are currently the best team in baseball. But the Dodgers don’t have to worry about beating the Rays now. They simply need to finish ahead of the Padres, Giants, Rockies and Diamondbacks.

Baseball Hot Streak

And they can certainly do that.

They rank fourth in the NL in runs scored. It’s unclear if they can sustain that pace while Ethier is sidelined, but the early returns are encouraging. They are 5-1 without their star and have averaged 4.5 runs per game.

For the foreseeable future, Dodgers fans will see a lot of Xavier Paul, Reed Johnson and Garret Anderson in the outfield. Los Angeles baseball historians are surely recalling how the Dodgers turned to Juan Pierre in 2009 when a certain left fielder was suspended for performance-enhancing drug use.

“You’re not going to replace Andre Ethier,” Colletti stated. “But we lost Manny for 50 games last year and ended up 29-21.”

James Loney is hitting for more power than he did last year. Matt Kemp still looks like an All-Star, despite Colletti’s public criticism of him earlier this season.

Russell Martin has caught 21 straight games – 21! – and it’s probably time for Torre to give him a day off. But he has been hitting, too.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the starting rotation has stabilized. During the recent run – which began when the team was 11-16 and in last place – Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley have performed like the top-of-the-rotation pitchers they were projected to be.

Kershaw, attacking more and nibbling less, is 3-0 with a dominant 0.81 ERA over his last three starts. He received a standing ovation at Dodger Stadium upon his exit from Thursday’s game.

Billingsley, who looked uncomfortable on the mound in a harrowing loss to the Reds last month, is 3-2 with a 2.64 ERA in five outings since. He trusts his fastball again.

Hiroki Kuroda has been very good all season: 5-1, 2.87 ERA, team-high 53 1/3 innings.

And the quirky, aggressive John Ely has been a revelation since coming up from the minors. Ely came to L.A. from the White Sox in the Pierre trade.

“We knew he was very competitive, a hard worker, someone who threw a lot of strikes – but we didn’t know he’d be in the big leagues by the end of April,” Colletti said. “But when you command the fastball, and throw your second and third pitches for strikes, you can be successful. He grinds it on every pitch.”

Colletti said injured starter Vicente Padilla is still three to four weeks away from returning. So, yes, the No. 5 spot is an issue. But that is the case for even the richest teams in the land. Ask the Yankees about Javier Vazquez, or the Red Sox about Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Even the rival Giants, reputed to have the National League’s best rotation, are having their patience tried by fifth man Todd Wellemeyer.

The most pressing issue for the Dodgers is whether the unsettled ownership will inhibit Colletti’s ability to upgrade in July. Even before the divorce proceedings, the Dodgers surrendered better prospects in lieu of taking on payroll.

When asked Thursday if he will have the flexibility to make the necessary trades, Colletti replied, “I haven’t been told that I don’t.”

Not exactly a promise to spend whatever it takes to win a title. For now, it will have to do. Amid the chaos, the Dodgers have a little room to hope.

Tagged: White Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, Andre Ethier

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