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By Jeff Saukaitis, TSN Contributor - Archive - Email
Dodgers making a little Magic
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - When one of your new team owners is Magic Johnson, perhaps it's fitting to be amidst a magical season.

During the spring, there weren't a whole lot of people picking the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the National League West. The defending division champion Arizona Diamondbacks and 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants seemed, to be fair, the more logical choices at the time.

Fast forward to today, and the Dodgers own the best record in baseball at 32-16. They lead the second-place Giants by 6 1/2 games and the third-place Diamondbacks by 10 1/2.

Yes, the Dodgers have some flaws. And, yes, they have benefited from having played a relatively easy schedule. Still, Major League Baseball history shows that the Dodgers, because of their quick start, are extremely likely to make the playoffs.

When the season advances past Memorial Day, it's not really accurate anymore to say that it's still early. It's not. We're now beginning to separate the contenders from pretenders, and the past shows us that the Dodgers are most likely in the contender camp.

Basically, when teams get off to the kinds of starts like the Dodgers have, they get to the playoffs. Often, they win the whole thing. Let's examine some of the best starts in MLB history, chronologically, and see how things turned out for those teams:

* The 1939 New York Yankees opened the season 39-7. They finished 106-45 and swept Cincinnati in the World Series.

* The 1966 Baltimore Orioles began the year 12-1, finished 97-63 and swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

* The 1970 Cincinnati Reds started 23-7, finished 102-60, but lost the World Series to Baltimore in five games.

* The 1977 Dodgers began the season 33-11, ended up 98-64 and won the NL pennant. They lost the World Series in six games against the Yankees, when Reggie Jackson crushed three home runs in the clincher.

* The 1982 Atlanta Braves won their first 13 games to become the surprise NL West champions with an 89-73 record. They lost the NL Championship Series to St. Louis.

* The 1984 Detroit Tigers jumped out to a 35-5 start, rolled to a 104-58 record and topped San Diego in five games in the World Series.

* The 1986 New York Mets opened 21-4 en route to a 108-54 record and, with assists from Bob Stanley and Bill Buckner, won the World Series in seven games over Boston.

* The 1987 Milwaukee Brewers won their first 13 games and went 17-1 in their first 18. They finished 91-71, but that was only good for third place in the American League East. They were the lone rapid-starting team in this study that failed to reach the postseason, although it's fair to point out they had the third-best record in the AL that year and would have made the playoffs if there were two wild-card spots available, as there are now.

* The 1990 Reds opened 33-12 on the way to a 91-71 record and a World Series sweep of Oakland.

* The 1995 Cleveland Indians began the year 33-11, finished the strike- shortened season 100-44 and lost the World Series in six games to Atlanta.

* The 1998 Yankees opened 37-11, finished 114-48 and swept San Diego in the World Series.

* The 2001 Seattle Mariners were 20-4 and 31-19 before finishing 116-46. They lost to the Yankees in the ALCS.

The Dodgers are in a similar situation as the teams mentioned above, although their record isn't quite as solid. Still, they're winning at a .667 clip, which would put them on pace for 108 victories. While they'd have to be considered unlikely to maintain that lofty pace, they won't need to do so to get to the postseason.

To get to 94 wins, which won the NL West last season, the Dodgers would only need to go 62-52 the rest of the way (a .544 winning percentage). There are five playoff teams in each league this year. Last year, 89 wins would have been good enough for the second NL wild card, had it existed. To get to 89 victories, the Dodgers would merely need to go 57-57 the rest of the way (a .500 winning percentage).

So, how could they possibly fail to do that? The biggest argument against the Dodgers' chances is that their 32-16 record is somewhat due to their incredibly favorable schedule to date. Only 12 of their first 48 games have been played against teams that currently have a winning record. In fact, they've played nine games against San Diego and six against Colorado, the two worst teams in their division.

The Dodgers are 7-2 against the Padres and 4-2 against the Colorado Rockies. Scoff at the schedule if you will, but Los Angeles is doing the main thing a championship-caliber team has to do to: It is winning the games it is supposed to win.

Also, the Dodgers are performing even better against quality opposition -- 9-3 in those 12 games against teams with winning records, including three-game sweeps of St. Louis and Washington. They're also 5-2 against the Giants and Diamondbacks, the two teams that represent their only real competition for the NL West title.

The most important thing a quick start does for a team is build confidence. Sure, the Dodgers are playing a bit over their heads this season, but that's a product of them believing in themselves.

Matt Kemp, arguably the best offensive player in the NL, has missed two-plus weeks with a hamstring injury. That could have been a crippling blow to a Dodgers team that has few standouts on offense, but Los Angeles is a respectable 9-5 in the games Kemp has missed.

Andre Ethier has helped carried the load in Kemp's absence, knocking in an NL- best 41 runs this season. Catcher A.J. Ellis has been a revelation. Given his first chance to start in the majors at age 31, he has batted .315 with 23 RBIs and played solid defense. Bobby Abreu, released by the Los Angeles Angels last month, has provided a solid .339 average while becoming a regular while Kemp and Juan Rivera have been sidelined.

The pitching staff is second the NL in earned run average, which is not that surprising since 2011 Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw tops a rotation that also features Chad Billingsley and dependable Ted Lilly (although Lilly was placed on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation on Monday). The surprise has been a finally 100-percent healthy Chris Capuano, who is 7-1 with a 2.14 ERA in 10 starts.

The Dodgers have been a big surprise overall, but now the only shocking thing that could happen to them the rest of the way would be to miss the playoffs. Don't count on it. With the new ownership group in place, Los Angeles is as likely as any contender to be willing to spend whatever it takes to fortify its roster at the trade deadline.

On Monday, reports surfaced that Los Angeles has made a contract offer to free- agent pitcher Roy Oswalt.

It might not end there, either. Could an expensive player on a non-contending team, like the Minnesota Twins' Justin Morneau, for instance, be wearing Dodger blue two months from now?

This is the season to believe in Magic.



Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.