LOS ANGELES -- On April 29, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts proclaimed that "when it's all said and done, the Dodgers will be at the top of the [National League West]." Heading into the All-Star break, Roberts' club is in position to fulfill his forecast.
Behind a deep outing from Clayton Kershaw, and solo homers by Yasmani Grandal and Enrique Hernandez, the Dodgers beat the Angels, 5-3, at Dodger Stadium on Sunday to complete the first half a half-game ahead of the second-place D-backs.
"The one thing that I really like about this team is how we really figured it out," said Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who tied for the NL lead with his 27th save. "That kind of shows you the type of players that we have in this locker [room], that we've got to put stuff behind us and never panic."
The Dodgers have had plenty of reason to panic. A post-World Series hangover lingered into the start of the 2018 season as they opened 16-26. Their starting pitching has been ravaged by injuries. That includes Kershaw, who appears to be back to full health just in time.
"I think we're playing a little bit more now like what we are," Kershaw said. "I don't think we're a 16-26 ballclub, obviously. Good for us to right the ship; good for us to right the ship that quickly."
For the first time since returning from the disabled list on June 23, Kershaw took the mound without any restriction. He obliged, throwing 108 total pitches while allowing three runs on six hits and four walks. He struck out eight batters, with his fastball averaging 91.3 mph, according to Statcast™.
"I think that if we look back at where we were a month ago, concerning Clayton Kershaw," said Roberts, "we couldn't be more excited."
Kershaw didn't factor in the decision, despite the Dodgers taking a 3-0 lead in the second frame. Grandal opened the scoring with a home run off Angels starter William McGuire, Hernandez lifted a sacrifice fly to score Alvin Toles and Kershaw chipped in with an RBI single.
The Angels pulled even in the fourth, when Jefry Marte -- who earlier broke his bat over his leg after striking out with the bases loaded in the first -- exacted his revenge on Kershaw with a three-run blast on the first pitch.
"Frustrating when you can't protect a lead like that," Kershaw said. "But guys picked us up today and picked up a big win before break."
Right-hander Kenta Maeda, who served in a relief role last year but has been solid as a starter this season, was available in the bullpen for the final game of the first half. He replaced Kershaw with two on in the top of the seventh and hit Justin Upton with his first pitch to load the bases, but he struck out Ian Kinsler to escape the jam.
"It was probably the biggest out of the game," Roberts said.
In the bottom of the inning, Hernandez teed up a tiebreaking home run off Angels reliever Taylor Cole, giving the Dodgers a 4-3 advantage. Roberts said the combination of Hernandez's bat and versatile glove this season have made him a strong candidate for club MVP.
"His energy," Roberts remarked. "It seems like every time he's in there, something good happens."
Toles sliced an RBI single off Oliver Drake in the eighth to provide some insurance, underscoring the type of all-around effort the Dodgers have often relied on. At 53-43, the club's perilous start seems to be behind the players. Although, in some ways, the rough beginning has made the journey more worthwhile.
"It's a little more special, I feel like," Jansen said, "because we really find out truly to ourselves who we are. We've just got to keep going, man. It's a long season. There's still two and half more months left. When this break is over, it's go time."
Grandal said the Dodgers need to maintain the same focused approached they've kept through the first half of the campaign.
"I know that everyone was scared and pretty much giving up on the fact we were 10 games under," he said, referring to the Dodgers' 17-27 record on May 16. "I kind of seem to say the same thing every year: Just wait 'til we get to the end of the year and make your assumptions.
"So far, so good. We've still got a whole second half."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Kershaw surviving the storm: The Angels pounced on Kershaw in the first inning, loading the bases on David Fletcher's double and walks from Michael Trout and Upton. But the lefty settled down just in time, striking out Kinsler and Marte to escape the threat without yielding any runs.
"Once you've got guys on base, you've got to try to make quality pitches," Kershaw said. "They did a good job of laying off stuff there in the first inning. Fortunate to get out."
• Marte breaks bat over knee, then homers
In the fifth, Kershaw repelled the Angels again. He stranded Andrelton Simmons at third base after a one-out double by getting Trout on a flyout to right and striking out Upton.
"You can see, Clayton, that's why he's the best," Roberts said. "After that first inning, bowed his neck, found ways to be efficient, get the pitch count back on track."
Perhaps it felt like every game of the Freeway Series this season was close. That's because it was, with the Dodgers and Angels each winning two of three at home to split the season series. The average margin of victory across the six contests was 1.3 runs, with the Dodgers outscoring the Angels, 20-18.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
In addition to hitting the go-ahead homer, Hernandez showed his defensive value and versatility, making a pair of outstanding plays from two positions.
In the second inning, with Hernandez playing second base, Angels catcher Martin Maldonado flared a popup into shallow right field, prompting Hernandez and right fielder Matt Kemp to give chase. As the pair narrowly avoided a collision, Hernandez slid to his knees while making a snow-cone grab.
After shifting to right field in the ninth inning, Hernandez made an even more impressive snag, sliding in to catch a fly ball by Fletcher to put away the second out of the frame. Hernandez needed to cover 64 feet in 3.8 seconds to make the play, according to Statcast™. The catch had only a 14 percent probability, making it a 5-star play, the highest rating given by Statcast™.
"I was asked this about the MVP or the stars of the first half, and he's right there for our team MVP at this point," Roberts said. "The flexibility that he gives us on the defensive side, and he's a plus-defender everywhere. He's made highlight-reel plays all first half."
HE SAID IT
"It doesn't surprise me. He's such a great athlete. You can put him anywhere on the field and you're going to have a plus-defender there. So obviously, I'm happy that he's having some success. He works his tail off prior to the game. I'm just happy it's working out for him." -- Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley, on Hernandez
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Toles scored in L.A.'s three-run second, but it took a pair of reviews going the Dodgers' way to keep him on base. The speedy outfielder hit a high-chopper to first baseman Marte and dove headfirst into first, arriving just as McGuire arrived at the bag to receive the toss. Tole was ruled out, but a challenge led to the call being overturned, as replays showed Toles' hand arrived just in time to get stepped on by McGuire's right foot.
Moments later, McGuire tried to pick off Toles at first. Toles was ruled safe on a close play. The Angels challenged, but the call was allowed to stand, as the replay couldn't definitively determine whether Marte applied a tag before Toles got back.
The Dodgers open the second half of the season on Friday with a 5:10 p.m. PT matchup against the Brewers in Milwaukee. Neither club has officially announced a starting pitcher.