OK, this is too easy, saying the Los Angeles Dodgers are headed to the World Series. The Dodgers are in the middle of their best 43-game stretch in 60 years. Of course they appear headed to the World Series.
So much can happen in the final seven weeks of the regular season. Anything can happen in the postseason. But tell me: Which National League team would you pick, right now, to beat the Dodgers in a best-of-five Division Series or best-of-seven NLCS?
My leading candidate, believe it or not, would be the Pittsburgh Pirates, but more on that in a moment. The Dodgers, who host the Tampa Bay Rays this weekend (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 4:05 p.m. ET/1:05 p.m. PT), are on one of the more spectacular rolls in recent memory — and that’s with center fielder Matt Kemp, the runner-up in the 2011 MVP balloting — appearing in only 11 of these fabulous 43 games.
Through June 21, the Dodgers were 30-42 with a negative-51 run differential. Since then, they’re 35-8 — that’s right, 35-8 — with a plus-79 run differential.
Credit the arrival of right fielder Yasiel Puig and return of shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Credit the 1-2 combination of left-hander Clayton Kershaw and righty Zack Greinke, the trade for righty Ricky Nolasco, the stunning rise of closer Kenley Jansen and revival of a previously sorry bullpen.
Whatever, it’s all working, and working in a big way.
The Dodgers lead the Arizona Diamondbacks by 5-1/2 games in the NL West after trailing by a season-high 9-1/2 on June 21. Things soon could turn — the Dodgers figure to cool, and the Diamondbacks might get hot and again make this a race. But at this point, would anyone be surprised if the Dodgers won the division by 10 or more games?
Don’t tell commissioner Bud Selig, father of all wild cards, but the NL playoff picture appears almost set. The Atlanta Braves hold a 15 1/2-game lead in the East. The Dodgers look increasingly comfortable in the West. And the three Central powers — Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Cincinnati — all would make the playoffs if the season ended today. The D-Backs, the biggest threat to the status quo, trail the Reds for the second wild card by 4-1/2 games.
So, why do I like the Dodgers, at this moment, to win the entire NL? For the obvious, time-honored reason: starting pitching.
Kershaw leads the majors with a 1.91 ERA. Greinke is one of the game’s top No. 2 starters. Lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu is a formidable No. 3, and Nolasco is quite adequate as a No. 4. Oh, and by the way, Jensen had retired 27 straight hitters as the closer — 15 by strikeout — before the Cardinals’ David Freese hit a two-out single off him Thursday night.
None of this means the Dodgers are a lock. Heck, they’re only 13-11 behind Kershaw, in large part because they’re giving him the fifth-worst run support in the majors. Greinke flopped in his only three postseason starts with the Milwaukee Brewers. And Ryu could wear down in his first major league season, even though he worked 180 or more innings five times in seven years in Korea.
Still, what other NL contender could even come close to matching Kershaw and Greinke?
The Braves, with lefty Mike Minor and possibly righty Julio Teheran, would bring far less experience. The Cardinals would face a similar issue — their ace is veteran righty Adam Wainwright, but their No. 2 is rookie righty Shelby Miller.
The Reds, with righties Mat Latos, Homer Bailey and, if healthy, Johnny Cueto, could pose an interesting threat. And the Pirates, with lefty Francisco Liriano, righty A.J. Burnett and lefty Jeff Locke, might be the most legitimate challenger of all.
The Pirates, in fact, are the only team in the majors who rank ahead of the Dodgers in rotation ERA; the Cardinals are third, the Reds fourth and the Braves sixth. And, as pointed out by ESPN’s Jayson Stark, opponents are batting just .229 overall against the Pirates’ pitching staff, a mark that would be the lowest against any NL staff since the 1986 Astros.
The problem with the Pirates is their offense, which ranks only 10th in the NL in runs per game. Still, they’ve been slightly better since the All-Star break, averaging 4.19 runs, fourth in the NL, compared with 3.84 before the break, 12th in the league.
“Right now that team just believes,” one NL general manager said of the Pirates on Thursday. “Until someone pops their bubble — and it might never pop — they’re going to be competitive.”
A Pirates-Dodgers NLCS? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A waiver trade could alter the equation for one or more of the contenders. Injuries are even more likely game-changers, and it would be a shock if all five of the top NL contenders remained physically intact.
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen was scratched Thursday because of shoulder discomfort. The Dodgers’ Ramirez, suffering from his own shoulder issue, is trying to avoid his third trip to the DL. Kemp is in the middle of his third trip, and left fielder Carl Crawford has been on the DL twice.
It’s baseball. Crazy stuff happens. But for now, I’ll take the team that is in the middle of a 35-8 blitz. I’ll even take it a step further, and dream of a Dodgers-Detroit Tigers World Series: Kershaw vs. Max Scherzer, Greinke vs. Justin Verlander, Ryu vs. Anibal Sanchez.
Rarely in any sport do we see this type of reversal.
Seven weeks ago, most of us were ready to bury the Dodgers. Now, with seven weeks left, they look like the favorite in the National League.