After historic turnaround, Dodgers can revel in title
LA hasn't looked back since furious surge that lifted team out of last place
PHOENIX -- The Dodgers completed the greatest comeback in franchise history Thursday when they clinched the National League West title with a 7-6 win over Arizona.
The come-from-behind victory -- sparked by a pair of Hanley Ramirez homers and a tiebreaking solo shot by A.J. Ellis -- ignited the kind of boisterous celebration that should be expected for a team that goes from last to first, but wasn't appreciated by the hosts.
When Kenley Jansen locked it down by getting Aaron Hill to fly out to Skip Schumaker, the players emptied from the dugout to the infield and gathered around second base to receive their division championship shirts and caps.
"This is a great milepost on the road to greater achievements," said club president and CEO Stan Kasten. "I'm proud of all of them, especially the front office, the manager and the coaches."
Eventually, the party moved into a clubhouse that was soon soaking in champagne and beer, although about a dozen Dodgers, including Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, first decided on an impromptu pool party in the Chase Field pool beyond the right-center wall.
Add that to the bad feelings between the two clubs, which erupted June 11 in a Dodger Stadium brawl. Some Arizona officials and players were livid with the Dodgers, calling the celebration disrespectful.
"I would expect them to act with a little more class than they did. I doubt the New York Yankees would do something like that," D-backs infielder Willie Bloomquist said. ""They have a lot of veteran players on their team. I thought they had more class than that."
Kasten couldn't understand what the fuss was about.
"I've never seen a celebration where everyone isn't boisterous and enthusiastic," he said.
Through June 21, under a siege of injuries to key players, the last-place Dodgers were 31-42, 9 1/2 games out of first place and manager Don Mattingly's job was in jeopardy. Beginning with a 6-1 win in San Diego on June 22, the Dodgers unleashed a furious turnaround that one month later catapulted them into first place and they haven't looked back.
They are the fourth team to finish first after being in last after July 1. The 1914 Braves, '73 Mets and '95 Mariners are the others.
"Now we can say we're there," said Mattingly, who has been gunshy about postseason comments while the Dodgers lost 10 of the previous 14 games. "There were a lot of expectations with this club. We had a horrible start and a lot of injuries, but the players came together and got healthy and we just rolled."
From June 22 to August 23, the Dodgers went 46-10 (.821 winning percentage), extending their lead to 10 1/2 games as the rest of the division collapsed. Until this year, the largest deficit the Dodgers had overcome to finish first was 7 1/2 games in 2006.
"It's a baseball season, not a week or a month," general manager Ned Colletti said. "I always felt if we got healthy, it was just a matter of us keeping our focus until then."
This is the Dodgers' first division title since the Manny Ramirez-led 2009 edition, and if the season ended today the lead of 10 1/2 games would be the largest margin since they won by 13 ½ games in 1955. If the playoffs opened now, the Dodgers (88-65) would face St. Louis (89-64) in the first round, with the Cardinals having the home-field advantage. The Braves (90-62) own the NL's best record.
"I'm a guy who doesn't feel a lot of emotion, but this is a great accomplishment," Mattingly said. "We put together a great team with a big payroll and the expectations were huge and you see that where sometimes it all falls apart. We stuck together. My coaches were loyal to me, during the bad times when it was tough and they could have turned on me. They were sold. No backbiting. They kept it together."
Of course, reaching the postseason is merely the first step for the Dodgers. Since taking it all in 1988, they've qualified for the playoffs seven other times without reaching the World Series.
In their last two trips to the best-of-five NL Division Series, the Dodgers swept the Cubs in 2008 and the Cardinals in 2009, but were eliminated by the Phillies in the best-of-seven NL Championship Series in five games both seasons.
The Dodgers added Zack Greinke to a rotation headed by Kershaw with October in mind. In a best-of-five first series, they might need only three starters. The opponent will no doubt influence whether the third starter is Korean rookie lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, righty Ricky Nolasco, or even late pickup Edinson Volquez, who seems to have strong staff support.
In those rugged first three months of 2013, the Dodgers lost starting pitchers Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett to season-ending operations; Greinke for a month with a broken collarbone from one of two first-half brawls; starting shortstop Ramirez to thumb surgery and a pulled hamstring; another hamstring pull that sidelined Kemp for a month, the first of his four injuries; yet another hamstring pull that cost the comebacking Carl Crawford a month; all part of 20 disabling injuries suffered before that magic June 22 date.
But Ramirez finally healed and returned June 4, one day after the debut of Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig. Combined, they provided a pair of power bats to take some of the burden off workhorse Adrian Gonzalez. The added benefit of Puig's unbridled enthusiasm seemed to ignite, if not challenge, his teammates to raise their game.
Overcoming injuries has been a theme of this season and it could continue into October. Kemp's four injuries have taken a toll on his game physically, and mentally as well. The most recent of Crawford's nagging injuries is a stiff lower back. Andre Ethier is still walking in a boot to protect a sprained ankle. Ramirez has a bad back that can flare up with no warning.
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.