The Dodgers' season was only weeks old, and it looked bleak.
Everyone blamed pitching, and by May 8, everyone was right.
That was the night knuckleballer Charlie Haeger, making his fifth start, threw one of the worst games in Dodgers history, dropping the club to six games back and in the National League West cellar.
Now, the Dodgers are baseball's hottest club, winning 12 of their last 14 games. In May, they're 16-5, tops in the major leagues. And the Dodgers, who play 16 games in 16 days starting Tuesday in Chicago, are one game behind the first-place San Diego Padres.
Everyone is crediting the pitching, and everyone is right.
In those 14 games, through Sunday, the Dodgers' pitching staff posted an earned-run average of 2.79, best in the majors, and limited opponents to a .217 batting average, tops in the National League.
What happened? Plenty. It had a lot to do with the May 9 pitching showdown between Clayton Kershaw and baseball's best, the Colorado Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez, but it also had to do with a fair-haired rookie from Illinois who had never pitched in the majors.
Manager Joe Torre recalled feeling momentum sliding his way on the day of Kershaw's gem, thinking, "We've got something going here," he said.
He was right.
Doubts about the Dodgers pitching staff swirled when Kershaw had the worst night of his career on May 4, a seven-run disaster in 1 1/3 innings. They got worse the next night when the Dodgers gave up 11 runs, again, in their second straight loss to Milwaukee.
Three nights later: Haeger failed to record a single out, giving up five runs in the first inning before being yanked against Colorado. Two days later, he was put on the 15-day disabled list because of plantar fasciitis.
Enter John Ely, a right-hander first called up by the Dodgers in late April as a stopgap measure but who dazzled them with his control.
The Dodgers got him in a salary-dump deal when they traded Juan Pierre to the Chicago White Sox during the off-season. Although he had pitched for double-A Birmingham (Ala.) last season, going 14-2, the scouting reports were basic.
"His stuff wasn't overpowering," General Manager Ned Colletti said, "but he was very competitive, would maximize every opportunity he had and throw strikes."
Yet, aside from the reports, no one knew too much.
"I knew we got him in the Pierre trade. That was pretty much it," right-hander Chad Billingsley said.
But then came Kershaw's gem against Jimenez, the hottest pitcher in baseball, who came in with an 0.83 ERA and a 6-0 record, plus a no-hitter to his credit.
Kershaw "knew he had to bring his good stuff," Billingsley said.
But what was Kershaw thinking about? "That I gave up seven in an inning the game before," he said.
With that in mind, Kershaw threw a brilliant eight innings that day, and the Dodgers won, 2-0.
"He'll look back on that game for a long time," Colletti said.
But the win did more than build Kershaw's confidence and give the team a win against a division foe. For the pitchers, "It set the tone," Billingsley said.
That began a nine-game winning streak, built on strong pitching, which produced a domino effect.
Two days after Kershaw's gem, Ely arrived, and would become the team's most surprising domino.
"I don't like to lose," Ely, 24, said. "I don't like to give in, whether it's one at-bat or one pitch."
This trait is evident in the way he pounds the strike zone. In his first start back, he didn't walk a single batter. He didn't in his next start either. In fact, his first walk this season didn't come until Saturday, his fifth start, ending a streak of 89 batters faced without giving up a base on balls. But that's it — one, now out of 99 batters, and he has 28 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings.
Torre thinks that trait rubs off on the rest of the staff.
"We always preach attacking the strike zone, but I think a lot of times it doesn't take effect until pitchers see somebody do it," Torre said.
Indeed, as Ely is being pushed by the rest of the staff, he too is pushing them. He is 3-1 with a 3.41 ERA.
"It's very impressive what he's done," Kershaw said. "At the same time, you say, 'Gosh, if this guy has the confidence to be able to do it, we should be able to do it too.'"
"He's been phenomenal," Billingsley said.
And when the pitchers believe, so do the hitters.
"If you know going out there that your starting pitcher is going to give you a chance to win, it's going to boost your confidence," said third baseman Casey Blake.
When Torre first saw Ely in spring training, he didn't really consider him inventory, though he does now.
"He gave us an air of stability," Torre said. "He took a lot of the guesswork about who's pitching four days from now. And he did it all by himself."
Ely knows he's done something right. Last weekend, he walked into the clubhouse and was given a Dodgers locker nameplate — with his picture on it.
Torre figures with the momentum the Dodgers now have, players expect to win, rather than hope to win, and he loves it.
"It's been fun for the manager," he said. "I can tell you that right now."
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