LOS ANGELES — The 2012 National League season has been nothing short of amazing for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Despite a slew of injuries that would have ended the pennant hopes of most teams, the Dodgers will still be leading the NL West when play resumes after the All-Star break on Friday as they host San Diego at Dodger Stadium. And even though it will be Friday the 13th, it should be a good day for Don Mattingly’s bunch.
2011 MVP runner-up Matt Kemp and two-time All-Star Andre Ethier will be back in the starting lineup, giving the struggling offense the presence of two of baseball’s top run producers. Second baseman Mark Ellis (surgery for a blood clot) and pitcher Javy Guerra (knee surgery) returned prior to the break, but they’ll be missing shortstop Dee Gordon, out for at least six weeks following surgery on his thumb. Pitchers Matt Guerrier and Blake Hawksworth are both on the 60-day DL and their returns are up in the air.
All in all, the Dodgers have been a remarkable team, battling through the injuries and the scoring slumps and the mediocre starting pitching by No. 2 starter Chad Billingsley. Here’s a look at the club as it tries to hold onto a postseason berth:
FIRST HALF MVP — If I had to pick a single player, it would be Kenley Jansen. After starting the season behind incumbent closer Guerra, Jansen took over the closer’s role and has been lights-out. He’s 4-2 with a 2.06 ERA and has converted 15 of 18 saves. He also has 63 strikeouts in 39.1 innings and a barely-visible WHIP of 0.76. Opposing batters are hitting a minuscule .127 against the big man from Curacao. Chris Capuano (9-4) would also get some consideration. But it wouldn’t be fair to this group of teammates to pick just one. So, my first-half MVP is the entire Dodgers bench, reserves who have stepped into starter roles for prolonged stretches and performed admirably. Jerry Hairston Jr., Juan Rivera, Bobby Abreu, Adam Kennedy, Elian Herrera and Ivan de Jesus have kept the Dodgers in first place; backup catcher Matt Treanor has also been excellent in spelling starter A.J. Ellis.
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER — Easy call on this one: Ellis. Besides calling a solid game behind the plate, Ellis starts the second half with a .285 average, a .404 OBP and a slugging percentage of .425. He’s hit seven homers, driven in 28 runs and been one of the best clutch hitters the Dodgers have had all year.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER — Billingsley. Again. He enters the second half with a five-game losing streak. Once so promising that the Dodgers rewarded him with a three-year, $30-million contract, the former 16-game winner is a model of inconsistency. Opponents are hitting a whopping .276 against him, and his WHIP has ballooned to 1.40. He has won just four of 13 decisions, and his ERA is 4.30, which would be a career high for the right-hander. He’s been passed up in the rotation by well-traveled Aaron Harang, and if he doesn’t turn it around, the Dodgers may have to consider a bullpen assignment for him. Or a trade.
THE TURNING POINT — Losing Kemp to a second hamstring injury on May 30. The Dodgers were 32-18 — best in baseball — and held a 5 1/2-game lead over the Giants and 9 1/2 over Arizona, the defending division champs. Since then, Los Angeles is 15-28, including a span of eight games in which they were shutout five times. The Dodgers’ lead over San Francisco has shrunk to one half-game and four games over the D-backs.
KEY SERIES — They play the Giants 12 more times this season, six at home and six at AT&T Park. They could see the division crown come down to three games at Dodger Stadium to end the season Oct. 1-3. Against Arizona, the Dodgers will play seven of their remaining nine at Dodger Stadium, but the final two games in the series will be at Chase Field in Phoenix on Sept. 11 and 12.
QUESTION THAT HAS TO BE ANSWERED IN THE SECOND HALF — Simply, can the Dodgers get and stay healthy? If so, they should see the playoffs for the first time since 2009. If not, the Giants and Diamondbacks are too good not to take advantage of a weakened Dodgers team.