If you zoom out far enough, drop enough context, the Los Angeles Dodgers are almost unremarkable.
After all, here is a team with the second-highest payroll in baseball that has spared no expense to put together a team of superstars -- superstars who either just have or are about to hit the wrong side of 30 with major money and years left on their contracts, sure; superstars that get hurt a lot, or whose best years appeared to be behind them; but superstars nonetheless -- has publicly declared that its front office operates without a hard budget and plays in what is traditionally one of the softer divisions in the sport.
Here is a team that boasts Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and any two of Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier at any time due to injury, along with solid role players like A.J. and Mark Ellis, Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker; a team blessed with young talent like Kenley Jansen, who we knew was good coming into the season, and Yasiel Puig and Hyun-Jin Ryu, who we could make educated guesses about (though Puig's overshot everyone but the most optimistic Dodgers fans' expectations), and that was able to pick up a starting pitcher like Ricky Nolasco, in the middle of his first season with a sub-3.00 ERA, at the deadline and slot him in as the fourth starter.
In short, a team that you could look at on paper right now with no knowledge of the season so far, compare that team to the standings and say, "Sixth-best team in baseball by record? Yeah, I guess that sounds about right. Might be a little low."
But that, of course, isn't the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers at all.
The rumors started in mid-May -- the earliest I can find is May 13, when Doug Mittler posted this piece to ESPN Insider -- that Don Mattingly's job was in trouble. The Dodgers and their $216 million payroll were firmly in last place in a division that, as expected, was wide open and fairly weak. This was back when the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants were playing musical chairs with the division lead. On the 13th the Giants were in first, and by the 18th it was the Diamondbacks again, with the Dodgers languishing in last place behind even the San Diego Padres, which was unacceptable, or at least it was unacceptable to fans and writers. That same level of panic got projected onto the Dodgers' front office.
Mattingly wasn't fired, but not because the team turned things around in mid-May -- it would be more than another month until Los Angeles' record hit its nadir for the 2013 season at 30-42 on June 21, halfway through a four game series with that very same Padres team. There were reasons outside of the 25-man roster for why the Dodgers were where they were. The Padres, for instance, were playing their best baseball of the season. On May 21 they had managed to climb all the way into second place, though the NL West remained a five team race, while the Dodgers were the farthest out of the division lead they would ever be this year, and they were still only 9 ½ games back.
Most of the reasons, though, were on the Dodgers roster -- they just weren't playing. Injuries to Hanley Ramirez in the World Baseball Classic, Zack Greinke at the hands of Carlos Quentin and Matt Kemp, who was playing hurt all year until he went on the DL and then stayed there for most of June, didn't help matters. Carl Crawford has followed the same general script as Kemp, though when healthy he's been a bit more productive. Chad Billingsley vanished to get Tommy John surgery after all of 12 innings. Chris Capuano, who was brought into the rotation to replace Greinke, blew up his shoulder in his first start in Greinke's spot; Josh Beckett had been hurt since camp opened and disappeared for the year in early May. The Dodgers gave Luis Cruz, who would later in the season distinguish himself with poor play in a Yankees infield, 128 plate appearances of .127/.175/.169 hitting before finally pulling the plug on him.
The starting rotation, which had so much depth at the start of the year that the Dodgers felt comfortable trading Aaron Harang to the Colorado Rockies on April 6 because they had nowhere to pitch him, wore so thin at times that the team was forced to throw 23-year-old Matt Magill into the fire a bit sooner than it would have liked. Magill's a solid prospect, but his 6.51 ERA in 27.2 MLB innings wasn't helping the Dodgers win ballgames. He made his last start of 2013 as a Dodger on June 9, and the Dodgers would prefer they not have to ask him to make another. Not that keeping Harang would have been any better -- he ended up with the Seattle Mariners, where he's thrown 102.2 innings of 5.79 ERA ball in one of the more extreme pitchers' parks in the game. Sometimes all the options are bad.
And it was on Friday, June 21 -- almost exactly, precisely on June 21, as the Dodgers flirted with falling 10 games out of first place -- that things changed. Entering Wednesday, since June 22, Los Angeles is 39-8. It goes without saying that's the best record in baseball across that timespan. No one else, not even the Pirates during their ridiculous hot streak earlier this season, is playing .826 ball. It's difficult to pinpoint why it turned right when it did, too -- and make no mistake, that Friday night into Saturday morning is when it changed, as the Dodgers won the next six games in a row, and 10 of the next 12, and, well, you know the rest: 39-8 since.
Surely the Dodgers wouldn't have become the force they did over the past two months if not for the blistering hot bats of Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig, but Ramirez returned to the team as the regular shortstop at the end of May and Puig was called up at the beginning of June, and during some of the white-hottest stretches of either man's exemplary season at the plate the Dodgers went nowhere. The Dodgers also wouldn't be what they were without Greinke and Ryu backing Cy Young favorite Kershaw in the rotation -- except Greinke had been back and doing his thing since mid-May, and while Ryu has been outstanding, he was actually a slightly better pitcher before June 21 than he was after, and the Dodgers have been trying to rest him more as the year goes on and his innings creep up.
Twenty-six-year-old starter Stephen Fife, one of the unexpected pleasant surprises for the Dodgers' otherwise grim early-season pitching situation, has a very pretty 2.47 ERA in 51 inning, but only 23.1 of those came after the winning streak started, and he's made a grand total of two starts since the end of June. Ricky Nolasco's been great, and he's helped pay the winning streak forward, but he arrived in the second week of July, not the end of June. Adrian Gonzalez has been steady all year. Juan Uribe has actually fallen off fairly significantly. The schedule hasn't been significantly easier or harder. There's no one great narrative cause to point to for why it was June 21 into June 22 that the Dodgers remembered they were one of the most talented teams in baseball and decided to start playing like it.
Well, there is one, actually. Remember poor Luis Cruz, he of the .344 OPS in Dodger blue this season? The Dodgers granted him his release on June 19 to pursue a starting job in New York. That weekend, their magical run began. Now, the Dodgers also gave most of his at bats to Nick Punto (.437 OPS in June) and Jerry Hairston (.659 OPS in June), so it's hard to point to them as direct catalysts in the turnaround even though their production obviously outstrips what Cruz was doing at the plate.
The real answer, of course, is: all of the above. Neither Hanley Ramirez nor Yasiel Puig was going to drag the Dodgers to the promised land on his own; neither was Zack Greinke nor Hyun-Jin Ryu, even if Greinke is batting better than every designated hitter in baseball not named David Ortiz this year. Getting something approaching league-average production out of whatever position on the left side of the infield Hanley Ramirez isn't playing (which is both right now, because he's hurt again and the Dodgers are still winning) won't turn a season around by itself, but combined with Adrian Gonzalez being a steady hand at first base, Mark Ellis gradually raising his game at the plate over the past two months, Greinke returning and Nolasco further stabilizing the rotation, along with the bullpen led by Kenley Jansen shaving almost three whole runs off their ERA since their terrible June (4.78 ERA in relief in June, 1.90 ERA in July, 1.26 in August), if left alone for a month or two to settle it can lead to some pretty good baseball. Not 39-8 baseball, not all the time, because no team in the modern era is really that much better than all the others, but a pretty damn fine team nonetheless.
And eventually, once this season's over and the memories of July and August have faded just like the memories of April and May are fading now, we'll more likely than not look back at where the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers ended up and say, "Yeah, that looks about right."