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Dodgers are a very real player in NL West race

After rough start to year, addition of Puig and return to health has LA rolling @TracyRingolsby

DENVER -- Before this season is completed, the Dodgers might enjoy the last laugh.

Belittled for more than two months for their on-field failures despite having one of the biggest payrolls in baseball history, the Dodgers are quickly putting the ugliness of the first part of the 2013 season behind them.

And this is more -- much more -- than a one-man show.

Yes, the baseball world is marveling at the abilities of rookie Yasiel Puig, whose first-month mastery of the game has put him in a group where he's being mentioned along with Joe DiMaggio.

But remember that, despite Puig's heroics, the Dodgers won only seven of the first 17 games during which he was in the lineup. They were actually a season-worst 9 1/2 games out of first place at that point.

And then …

Well, let's just say that the rest of the National League West made a big mistake. When the Dodgers were stumbling and fumbling, nobody ran away with the division. They gave the Los Angeles a chance to get back into the race. And here it is, three days into July, and look who is making noise in the NL West.

The Dodgers have won nine of their past 10 games. They have cut seven games off their deficit to first-place Arizona. They went into Wednesday night's game at Colorado in third place in the division, 2 1/2 games behind the D-backs, a half-game in front of last place San Francisco, percentage points ahead of San Diego, and just a win on Wednesday away from moving into a second-place tie with the Rockies.

The lineup has started to click. The rotation has strong-armed hitters. And the bullpen is finally showing consistency.

The Dodgers are good, and by the weekend, they could well be better.

While Puig has been the feel-good story, what's made the Dodgers a factor in the NL West again has been the team's ability to get healthy -- and the fact that the infusion of veterans that has taken place in the last 11 months has finally had a chance to start to meld.

It was two weeks ago -- when the Dodgers had an off-day in New York followed by a rainout against the Yankees -- that manager Don Mattingly made the decision to make a push leading up to the All-Star break.

Instead of making sure he found time off for veterans like Hanley Ramirez who had come off the disabled list, Mattingly decided to go with a regular lineup featuring Puig hitting second, Adrian Gonzalez third and Ramirez fourth. Then came the return last week of Matt Kemp, to hit fifth, ahead of Andre Ethier.

Ramirez is rejuvenating his career. He's hit .377 since the arrival of Puig, who has hit .443, and they both have 17 RBIs, even though injuries limited Ramirez to 37 fewer at-bats. What's more, during the Dodgers' 9-1 run, during which Puig has hit .425, Ramirez has batted .400 and driven in a team-best 10 runs -- twice as many as Puig and Gonzalez, who rank second on the team during that stretch.

And by the weekend … Well, Carl Crawford is expected to come off the disabled list, and the Dodgers will once again have their uncertainty at the top of the lineup settled. What does Crawford mean to the Dodgers' lineup? Well, their leadoff spot has a cumulative OPS of .751 in 82 games. Crawford hit leadoff in 43 of those, and his OPS in that role was .851. While Puig had a 1.391 OPS in his 33 plate appearances in that role, he's now settled into the No. 2 slot, and the next-highest OPS for a Dodgers leadoff hitter this season is .657 for Mark Ellis.

A rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Chris Capuano and Stephen Fife has combined to go 6-1 with an NL-best 2.38 ERA during the stretch, and Fife (2-0, 1.98) has made such a strong impression the Dodgers are debating what to do when Ted Lilly comes off the disabled list.

And there are signs of relief from a bullpen that has been a season-long work in progress, with positive signs coming in recent moves that included replacing Brandon League in the closer's role with Kenley Jansen, calling up Jose Dominguez, who has a downward-plane fastball that hits triple digits, the return of Chris Withrow, and the recent change-of-scenery deal that sent Matt Guerrier to the Cubs for former Chicago closer Carlos Marmol.

The Cubs gave up on Marmol.

But then a couple weeks ago, most of baseball had given up on the Dodgers.

And look what's happened since.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for

Los Angeles Dodgers