When the Los Angeles Dodgers prepared for the 2012 season, not many baseball people believed they would have much chance to compete for the National League West title.
Through the middle of June, the Dodgers owned the best record in the Major Leagues. However, like all baseball teams, they have periods when they can't do anything right. Right now, the Dodgers are going through one of those frustrating periods.
On Wednesday the San Francisco Giants completed a three-game sweep of the Dodgers. Also on Wednesday, Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier appeared to pull an oblique. An MRI has been scheduled for Thursday, but almost certainly the Dodgers will have to put Ethier on the disabled list.
On the way to the airport to return to Los Angeles, the bus broke down. Nothing is going the Dodgers' way.
Despite having an eight-game lead over the Giants at one time earlier this season, the Dodgers and San Francisco are now tied for the lead in the NL West. Although the Arizona D-backs have struggled for most of this season, they are a mere five games back.
Until now, the Dodgers had experienced remarkable luck this season. Even when they had an injury to a key player, they found a way to win. But now, the Dodgers haven't scored a run in thirty innings. Although rookie Nate Eovaldi struggled for the first two innings in the first game of the series when he allowed eight runs, Dodgers pitching was superb.
However, no team can win without scoring. At no point during the series could the Dodgers launch a serious scoring threat.
Losing Ethier for any significant amount of time will further weaken an unproductive offense. When Matt Kemp originally went on the disabled list, the Dodgers could still score runs. Mark Ellis, who might be the best second-place hitter in the National League, continued displaying unselfish play, as he didn't care about his batting average as long as he moved the runner in front of him into scoring position. Since Ethier had a poor offensive performance in 2011, the opposing pitchers kept giving him decent pitches to hit until he proved that he could hit them.
When Ellis almost lost his leg and had to go on the disabled list, the Dodgers lost a perfect second-place hitter. Manager Don Mattingly has tried almost everyone on the team in that important spot in the lineup without much success. A.J. Ellis would be the best fit, but having a catcher hit second tires him out more than having him hit later in the lineup because he will come to bat more during a game.
When Ethier proved that he'd recovered from having arthroscopic knee surgery and regained his power, the opposing pitchers stopped giving him anything good to hit. He wanted to help his team offensively, and he understood that he was the only true power threat in the lineup. Ethier began pressing and chasing bad pitches. Even though Ethier has slumped for about a month, having him in the lineup helped the offense.
The Dodgers can't survive offensively without Kemp and Ethier unless general manager Ned Colletti quickly obtains another power hitter with a good batting average. That is highly unlikely to happen.
When the 2012 season began, most baseball people thought the Giants and D-backs were the favorites to win the NL West. Through the first month of the season, the Giants couldn't score enough runs. Their aging veterans couldn't produce anymore.
When the Giants lost closer Brian Wilson for the season to the second Tommy John surgery of his career, most baseball people wrote them off. Aubrey Huff went on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder. Although he returned, he wasn't productive. While celebrating Matt Cain's perfect game, Huff twisted his knee and had to go back on the disabled list.
The Giants relied on Freddy Sanchez to provide offense and good defense. He hasn't been able to play at all this year. Ryan Theriot has picked up the slack and helped the Giants catch the Dodgers.
While Pablo Sandoval sat out with a broken bone in his hand, the Giants couldn't score. Now, upon his return, they are better offensively. Giants manager Bruce Bochy has a dynamic offense. The young Giants have learned the importance of getting on base. They steal bases and take the extra base when they see an opportunity. Therefore, the Giants don't waste many scoring chances.
Despite the well-publicized problems of two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, who broke a 10-game winless streak Wednesday, the Giants have the third-lowest ERA in the NL. The starting rotation still has the ability to dominating anyone, and it has the experience of pitching in important games, so they won't get nervous under pressure. Cain, arguably the best starter in the NL this year, has already pitched a one-hitter and a perfect game.
Although most baseball teams would have been crippled when they lost their closer, the Giants had enough pitching depth to deal with the loss. Their bullpen has the fifth-lowest ERA.
Anyone who didn't believe the NL West race would be exciting until the last day of the season hadn't followed it for long. If the Dodgers find a way to score again, the competition for the divisional title appears to be a three-team dogfight. Since the Dodgers haven't faced either the Giants or D-backs more than nine games in the first half, they will have their toughest battles after the All-Star break.
Sarah D. Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.