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Dodgers' last-place stint a distant memory

Confluence of events -- and Puig -- led to remarkable run to first place

The Dodgers spent 55 consecutive days in last place earlier this season, and somewhere down the road -- say, October -- that may be the most remarkable piece of trivia about this team.

At the moment, they're a baseball team without a single significant weakness. Among the numbers:

• 32-8 since June 22.

• 15 straight road victories before Tuesday's 5-1 loss in St. Louis.

• 10 straight victories in one-run games.

Last place is a distant memory. After needing 95 games to get above .500 for good and 98 games to climb alone atop the National League West, the Dodgers have sprinted to a six-game lead, second-largest in baseball behind the Braves' 14 1/2-game lead in the NL East.

"We have so far to go," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti cautioned Tuesday afternoon.

No argument there.

Still, it's a remarkable accomplishment how far they've come. It's a tribute to Colletti's patience and to manager Don Mattingly's leadership, and to the energy of a kid outfielder.

It's a dozen different things coming together, including some very basic ones. When the Dodgers were lousy this season, there were reasons. Outfielder Matt Kemp has played 62 of 112 games and is on the disabled list for the third time this season. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez and outfielder Carl Crawford have each been on the DL twice.

Ramirez, who has batted .356 since the 32-8 run began, started just three of the Dodgers' first 56 games. He injured his shoulder falling into the stands on Sunday, and the Dodgers are holding their breath he'll only miss a few games.

Right-hander Zack Greinke got hurt in his second start and missed five weeks. The Dodgers were supposed to have so much starting pitching that we wondered during Spring Training what they would do with it all.

On Opening Day, they had eight veteran starters. Within three weeks, they'd used nine starters. Given all that, the Dodgers were a mess for a few months. On June 21, they were 30-42 and 9 1/2 games out of first place.

Among the smartest things President and CEO Stan Kasten did was nothing. That's right, nothing. In the tough times, they continued to believe in their original blueprint.

Rather than fire Mattingly -- and there were plenty of people who wanted them to do just that -- they took a deep breath and saw their club in the context of the whole season.

"Look, we just had to exhibit patience and get healthy," Colletti said. "Patience is one of the toughest attributes to have. It's so important. If you make decisions too fast, you're going to make mistakes. We thought if we could get healthy, we'd get better."

He probably couldn't guess how much better. One by one, players returned. Ramirez and Crawford. Greinke and second baseman Mark Ellis.

And they became respectable. And then more than that.

"I'm pleased with how we've stayed with it," Colletti said. "I'm pleased with how our extra players stepped up."

He mentions Nick Punto and Jerry Hairston and Skip Schumaker and Scott Van Slyke.

"Those types of players are always going to be in the background, but they really kept us steady," he said.

Another thing.

"[Andre] Ethier moved to center field when Matt went out," he said. "We weren't sure what to do there. He was game for the challenge."

Little bit of this, little bit of that. Oh, and there was that 22-year-old outfielder. Yasiel Puig made his Major League debut on June 3 in the Dodgers' 56th game of the season.

There's no way to completely quantify his contribution. He has played with such energy and joy and passion that it impacted virtually every player in that clubhouse. He plays recklessly, too, at times.

"He plays with -- I'm trying to find the right words -- reckless abandon," Colletti said. "I don't know if he understands what the warning track is all about. He seems to run into the wall pretty often."

He has also put up fantasy league numbers: .373 average with 12 doubles, 11 home runs and a 1.024 OPS. The Dodgers are 37-18 since he arrived, and as Vin Scully said during one game, "It's not supposed to be this easy."

"He gave us energy and passion," Colletti said. "He also kind of parallels with us getting healthy."

Still, it begins with pitching. With Clayton Kershaw and Greinke at the front of the rotation, Dodger starters are 22-7 with a 2.72 ERA during the 32-8 run.

Ramirez and Puig have put up tremendous offensive numbers, but contributions have come from every corner of the clubhouse.

One of the questions about the Dodgers was how so many new players would mesh into a cohesive unit.

Mattingly has helped make that happen with his steadiness and consistency. But veterans like Adrian Gonzalez and A.J. and Mark Ellis have helped, too.

The Dodgers have come together so dramatically that Colletti said, "The last six or seven weeks, this has been the best clubhouse I've ever been around. They stay together. They pick each other up."

As Colletti said, there's still work to do. Considering how much money ownership spent and how high the expectations were, the Dodgers have accomplished nothing.

But they've gotten our attention.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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