It might have taken 100 games, but except for the games-behind column in the standings, this is just about the way the Dodgers always envisioned the season.
And if Pedro Guerrero comes back today, even if it's only as a pinch-hitter, the picture will come into even sharper focus.
Tuesday night, Fernando Valenzuela became the National League's first 14-game winner and struck out 11, matching his season high, in the Dodgers' 2-1 win over the San Francisco Giants before a sellout crowd of 45,113 in Dodger Stadium.
Valenzuela had Giant runners on base in each of the last three innings but went the distance for his 12th complete game, most in the majors.
And he and Orel Hershiser, who had beaten the Giants by the same score the night before, gave the Dodgers their first back-to-back complete games since May 24-25, when the same two pitchers pulled off the feat.
"It's not quite the lineup we envisioned coming out of spring training, but it's definitely the pitching we envisioned," catcher Mike Scioscia said after the Dodgers' third win in a row and seventh in their last nine games.
The Dodgers pulled into a fourth-place tie with Cincinnati and gained a game on first-place Houston, which they now trail by 7 1/2 games. The second-place Giants, meanwhile, remain 3 1/2 games behind the Astros.
The Giants, who have lost 8 of their last 11 games, came into the series leading the league in hits. But they had only six hits off Valenzuela after getting only three the night before against Hershiser.
The Dodgers had only six hits off three Giant pitchers, but sacrifice flies by Greg Brock and Reggie Williams accounted for all the runs Valenzuela needed.
"That's what we've been looking for from these guys--Fernando and Orel, (Bob) Welchie, Rick Honeycutt and (Alejandro) Pena," Scioscia said.
"Fernando was as good as he can get tonight, but you can't just measure his strikeouts and say he pitched a great game. He could pitch a great game without striking out a single batter."
If strikeouts cannot stand alone as evidence, then consider the testimony of the Giants.
"If you're going to pick the top two pitchers in the league, he's one of them," said Joel Youngblood, whose pinch single in the seventh drove in the only Giants' run. "I respect him as highly as any pitcher in the league."
Of all the pitchers in the league, it was the fate of Giant rookie Kelly Downs to make his big-league debut against Valenzuela. Downs pitched credibly, giving up two slightly tainted runs. And he watched Valenzuela with incredulity.
"He was like an artist," Downs said. "He uses both sides of the plate, in and out. He's totally in control of himself. He is a pitcher."
The Giants posed their greatest challenge to Valenzuela in the seventh, and it came down to a confrontation between the Dodger left-hander and former teammate Candy Maldonado, the failed Dodger phenom turned Giant pinch-hitter extraordinaire.
Until the seventh, the only Giant hit was Bob Brenly's double in the fourth, a drive to right-center that Franklin Stubbs flagged down after a long run, only to have the ball glance off his glove. Reggie Williams, backing up the play, reached back with his bare hand and flung the ball forward, but for his effort was rewarded with an error as Brenly took third.
Brenly went no further as Valenzuela struck out the next two batters. Bob Melvin chased a breaking pitch in the dirt, then Valenzuela busted Jose Uribe inside with a fastball for a called third strike.
In the sixth, pinch-hitter Dan Gladden became Valenzuela's 10th strikeout victim, but the Giants finally broke through in the seventh, when Valenzuela began to fall behind hitters.
With one out, Chris Brown grounded a single to left, took second on Chili Davis' looping single and, after Brenly fouled out, scored on Youngblood's floater over the head of shortstop Mariano Duncan.
Up came Maldonado, who led the league's pinch hitters with a .438 average, including four pinch homers and 17 runs batted in, and who had driven in the tying or go-ahead run after the sixth inning in 8 of his 12 chances.
But with the kind of uppercut swing that finally caused Dodger Vice President Al Campanis to give up on his one-time favorite, Maldonado lifted a high fly ball to left for the final out of the inning.
"Candy hit the ball pretty good," Valenzuela said, "but I think he tried to hit the ball out of the park, maybe."
In the eighth, pinch-hitter Will Clark, who had three hits off Valenzuela the first time he faced him back in April, lined a leadoff single to right. But Randy Kutcher bunted into a force play, Rob Thompson tapped out in front of the plate and Valenzuela broke Jeffrey Leonard's bat on a slow roller to third.
"I felt strong with my fastball tonight," said Valenzuela, who had nine of his strikeouts in the first five innings and compared this game to his 15-strikeout, 1-0 win over Steve Carlton two years ago.
With two months left, Valenzuela would appear almost certain to become a 20-game winner for the first time.