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Dodgers are hotter than the Sahara Desert ... but is it a mirage?

Matt Kemp has led the Dodgers to a 9-1 start, their best since 1981. But it's all been against the feeble Padres and Pirates, and Manager Don Mattingly says, 'Things have kind of bounced our way.'

April 16, 2012|By Dylan Hernandez

Matt Kemp has been unstoppable. The Dodgers have been too.

Leading the major leagues in all three of the triple crown categories through Sunday, Kemp became the first player ever to win consecutive National League player-of-the-week awards in the first two weeks of a season. He also claimed the prize in the final week of 2011, making him the first player to win it three weeks running since its inception in 1974.

"He's the best player in baseball, and probably the world, right now," Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said. "It's pretty ridiculous."

Kemp is for real. Everyone in baseball seems to agree on that.

But what about the Dodgers?

Their 9-1 record is the best in the majors. The last time they won nine of their first 10 games was in the strike-shortened 1981 season, when they went on to win the World Series.

A three-game series in Milwaukee, which starts Tuesday, could offer some perspective.

Six of the Dodgers' wins came against the San Diego Padres, who might be the worst team in baseball. The other three were over the Pittsburgh Pirates, who aren't much better than the Padres.

The Brewers reached the National League Championship Series last season. Though they lost Prince Fielder to the Detroit Tigers over the winter and ranked 26th in the majors in batting average through Sunday, they have the potential to do something the Padres and Pirates could not: hit.

With a lineup that includes reigning NL most valuable player Ryan Braun (.343) and the fast-starting Corey Hart (.321, four home runs, eight runs batted in), the Brewers could help answer a question that might determine how far the Dodgers go.

That is, was Chad Billingsley's spectacular form in his first two starts a result of the mechanical adjustments he made in spring? Or did he simply benefit from facing two of the league's worst offensive teams?

Billingsley, who has given up only one run in 141/3 innings this season, will start the series opener. He will be followed by veteran newcomers Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang, who also remain the subjects of uncertainty.

Capuano and Harang have combined to average five innings per start. Dodgers relievers have posted a respectable 3.21 earned-run average, but maintaining that would be difficult if they have to pitch four innings every time Capuano and Harang take the mound.

Manager Don Mattingly didn't sound fazed by the upcoming challenge.

"We're capable of beating anybody," he said. "We know what. It doesn't really matter what anybody else thinks."

However, Mattingly also conceded, "We've had close games that could have gone either way. Things have kind of bounced our way a little bit."

The Dodgers have won five one-run games.

If you listen to Mattingly and his players, that's a sign of their resolve and newfound ability to manufacture runs, which has been enhanced by the additions of speedy leadoff man Dee Gordon and cerebral No. 2 hitter Mark Ellis. Andre Ethier has returned to his pre-injury form and has provided a complementary threat to Kemp in the middle of the order.

"Right now, we're really confident in ourselves," Kemp said. "Everybody's doing a great job of doing little things to win games."

But a cynic would probably say they were handed some wins by suspect opposition and umpiring.

In one win during their season-opening series in San Diego, the Dodgers walked 10 batters, hit another, blew a five-run lead and still beat the Padres.

They blew another five-run lead against the Padres on Friday at Dodger Stadium and strolled off with a victory when San Diego relievers Andrew Cashner and Joe Thatcher combined to walk four consecutive batters, all with two out, in the bottom of the ninth.

Closer Javy Guerra was bailed out Sunday by a disputed ninth-inning triple play, when plate umpire Dale Scott raised his arms in a way that seemed to indicate he was ruling Jesus Guzman's bunt to be foul.

A two-out single by Gordon in the bottom of the inning lifted the Dodgers to their second walk-off victory in three days.

"It's a matter of getting one win or another," Mattingly said. "You're going to have to win X amount of games this year to get to the playoffs. And every one you can win now is one you don't necessarily have to win later."

The early schedule could help the Dodgers pad their win total.

The Brewers are one of only two teams the Dodgers face this month that finished with a record better than .500 last season. The other is the Atlanta Braves, who visit Dodger Stadium from April 23-25.

The Dodgers won't have consecutive series against teams that had winning records in 2011 until the middle of May, when they host the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals from May 18-20 and visit the defending NL West champion Arizona Diamondbacks from May 21-23.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Times staff writer Kevin Baxter contributed to this report.

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