The Dodgers are enjoying the view from the top of the National League West, a perch few would have predicted they'd be occupying after they were swept by San Francisco in the season-opening series, but their heads remain clear.
"Being in first place is not significant--they don't give out trophies on April 30," General Manager Dan Evans said. "The good thing is that a lot of the things we hoped for in the off-season are coming true.
"Our pitching has given us the chance to win games, and to me that's the key. I like the energy, the enthusiasm we showed on the road trip. We're doing a lot of little things well. When you pitch well, you usually look good, and we've pitched well."
Dodger starters are 15-7 with a 2.51 earned-run average and closer Eric Gagne is nine for nine in save opportunities, but pitching isn't all that has pleased Manager Jim Tracy.
Cesar Izturis turned what appeared to be a routine single into a hustle double in Sunday's 4-1 victory over the Cubs in the second game of the Dodgers' doubleheader sweep. Later, Paul Lo Duca doubled to right and took third when the Cubs threw to the wrong base.
Third baseman Adrian Beltre made a diving stop of Chris Stynes' ninth-inning grounder in Game 2 on Sunday, and the Dodgers, who rank second in the league in fielding percentage, did not commit an error in their three-game sweep of the Cubs.
The Dodgers also have had a better offensive approach, showing more patience and hitting more balls to the opposite field.
About the only negatives in a 5-1 trip through Pittsburgh and Chicago were some failed sacrifice bunts, one a botched suicide squeeze Sunday, and several runners thrown out trying to steal.
"Our aggression on the bases has been tremendous--they're taking the extra base and forcing the issue," Tracy said. "And defensively, we're doing as good a job as we've done in the four years I've worn this uniform. We've gotten great starting pitching, and you have to feel good about the way we've been able to use the bullpen....We're building a neat thing here."
Except for Kevin Brown's setback--an elbow injury put him on the disabled list, but he returns tonight against the Reds--the Dodgers have not suffered the kind of injury that would sorely test their depth. Besides Shawn Green, no player has been in a prolonged batting slump.
"When you get to late May or early June, when you've played a variety of clubs, and you give the guys who have had slow starts a chance to come around and see if the guys who started hot can sustain it, then you'll have a better idea," said first baseman Eric Karros, batting .333 with 11 runs batted in, one of the best Aprils of his career. "It's great, what we've seen, but it's early."
Some would say what the Dodgers haven't seen is great. There are no malcontents in the clubhouse, there's been no bickering, no major distraction, no general manager getting fired.
The one player with a gripe, pitcher Omar Daal, who is upset about being sent to the bullpen, hasn't taken his frustrations to the mound. He went 2-0 with an 0.73 ERA in two starts in Brown's absence.
"There's a group of guys here, [Chairman] Bob Daly, Evans and Tracy, who have made efforts to get certain types of personalities in the clubhouse," Karros said.
"But does good chemistry create winning, or does winning create good chemistry? ... What [good chemistry] allows you to do is focus more on the field than [on] what's going on off the field."
Brown lasted only 11/3 innings before leaving his last start with his elbow injury April 13, and a relapse could tax the bullpen, but the Dodgers have not considered a minor league rehabilitation start or two for their ace.
Brown, who suffered a breakup of scar tissue after dialing his fastball up to 96 mph against the Padres, aired it out during his last bullpen workout Saturday, and the Dodgers believe that if the elbow were going to flare up again, it would have done so.
Two other factors went into the decision to start Brown against Cincinnati tonight: The Dodgers don't want their $15-million pitcher throwing off a foreign minor league mound, and if Brown has to leave the game early, the Dodgers can back him up with Daal.
"It may be tough for him to simulate a game-like situation in the bullpen or a minor league game, because this is a very different guy from the others you're used to dealing with," Tracy said.
"If we push him into a rehab start in the wrong frame of mind, then we might risk injury on a minor league field."
Opponent--Cincinnati Reds, three games.
TV--Fox Sports Net 2 tonight, Wednesday night and Thursday night.
Radio--KXTA (1150), KWKW (1330).
Records--Dodgers 16-9, Reds 15-9.
Record vs. Reds--(2001) 2-4.
(1-1, 5.11 ERA)
(0-0, 3.86 ERA)
Update--The Reds, picked by most to finish fifth or sixth in the National League Central, are quietly leading their division, despite the loss of Ken Griffey Jr. to a knee injury. Griffey is not expected back for this series but the Reds, whose seven-game winning streak was ended Sunday by the Giants, are 12-6 in his absence. Cincinnati has a 3.53 ERA and has been led offensively by center fielder Juan Encarnacion (.281, six homers, 18 RBIs) and first baseman Sean Casey (.312, 11 RBIs). Dodger third baseman Adrian Beltre went 10 for 24 with six RBIs on the last trip, raising his average from .266 to .307, and left fielder Brian Jordan has reached base in 20 straight games.
Wednesday, 7 p.m.--Hideo Nomo (2-3, 2.35) vs. Joey Hamilton (1-1, 3.30).
Thursday, 7 p.m.--Odalis Perez (3-1, 1.64) vs. Elmer Dessens (1-3, 1.80).