PHOENIX — In a season defined by one of the greatest comebacks in major league history, a three-run deficit was hardly going to be enough to keep the Los Angeles Dodgers from the NL West title Thursday.
Driven by Hanley Ramirez, the Dodgers clinched the NL West pennant with a 7-6 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks, becoming the fourth team to finish a season in first place after being in last place on July 1 or later.
Ramirez had two homers and four RBI, and A.J. Ellis hit a tiebreaking homer to lead off the eighth inning as Los Angeles overcame a 6-3 deficit for its first postseason berth since 2009.
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The Dodgers were 38-43 and in fifth place, 3 1-2 games behind the Diamondbacks on July 1, but they took command of the division with a 42-8 run that began the final week of June. The only other teams to pull of a midseason worst-to-first, according to Elias, are the 1995 Seattle Mariners, the 1973 New York Mets and the 1914 Boston Braves.
They also became the second team in as many seasons to win a division after trailing by as many as 9 1/2 games. The Oakland A’s trailed the Texas Rangers by 9 1/2 games before coming back to win the AL West last year.
“Even though you couldn’t really see the light, you knew it was out there,” champagne-soaked Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly said.
“It was pretty foggy, right, but we were able to stick to it and keep heading in the right direction. Then the boys took off.”
Some of them celebrated the clincher by taking a dip in the Chase Field swimming pool.
“It was awesome,” first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. “If we had a pool at our place and they celebrated, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”
The Dodgers have been the oddsmakers’ favorites to win the World Series for the last month or so, and it is hard not to like them.
Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke provide the best 1-2 rotation punch in baseball, and closer Kenley Jansen has 19 of his 26 saves and a 1.38 ERA since assuming the role full-time July 3. Ramirez has 20 homers in 81 games, and Gonzalez is two RBI from 100, where he would join Miguel Cabrera (seven) and Prince Fielder (six) as the only players with as many as 100 in six of the last seven seasons.
The Dodgers are 48-23 when Ramirez starts, and while they removed him Thursday after he hit in the ninth inning, they will have time to tend to his back without the pressure of must-win games until the playoffs start Oct. 3.
“Incredible,” Gonzalez said about Ramirez. “His season has been an absolute masterpiece. When he’s in the lineup, he’s our biggest threat. He’s the guy that drives us.”
So the Dodgers are exactly where Magic Johnson and their deep-pocketed ownership expected, and after a ride that had some wondering if Mattingly would still have his job at the All-Star break.
The retooling began with the acquisitions of big-money, big-talent players Gonzalez, Ramirez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett at the 2012 trade deadline, the spring training signing of Greinke as a free agent and the in-season additions of Ricky Nolasco, Michael Young and Brian Wilson, aka “Agent 00.”
“We put a great team together and a big payroll with huge expectations, and a lot of times that falls apart,” Mattingly said. “And it had a chance to fall apart during the season, but these guys were loyal. There was not backbiting. They stuck together.
“It (the big deficit) fazes you a little bit, but you have to keep it together. We didn’t panic. We believed in the talent that we had, and now we have put ourselves in position. That’s what we talked about in spring training: Get in position. We haven’t gotten where we want to go, but you can’t yourself there without getting in position.”
The Diamondbacks led the division for 77 days, but the Dodgers took over on July 22 and never looked back.
“They had a great second half,” Arizona manager Kirk Gibson said. “Where they come from was impressive. I like to think we made them better during the process.”