LOS ANGELES >> Boosted by rookie Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez, the Los Angeles Dodgers climbed from last to second in the NL West at the All-Star break. A healthy Matt Kemp is expected back in the lineup soon.
The Dodgers open the second half of the season Friday night at Washington, the start of a six-game trip that includes three games in Toronto. The Dodgers are within 2½ games of first-place Arizona in the NL West after trailing the Diamondbacks by 9½ games in June.
They are 17-5 — the majors’ best record — since June 21, when they were a season-worst 12 games under .500.
That’s when manager Don Mattingly was on the hot seat, facing rumors that his job was in jeopardy. Injuries to Ramirez and pitcher Zack Greinke, the offensive struggles of Kemp and Andre Ethier, and losing pitchers Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett to season-ending surgeries only added to their woes.
The Dodgers used the disabled list 22 times in the first half.
“We started off as bad as you could imagine,” second baseman-outfielder Skip Schumaker said. “To be where we are, still in this race, is huge. Our pitching is there. As long as we can keep our lineup healthy, we’re going to be OK.”
The Dodgers are surging, having gotten to 47-47, and starting to emerge as the power many expected them to be in spring training.
A year ago, they were 47-40 and had a half-game lead in the NL West at the break only to lose four of their first five games afterward and miss the playoffs.
Puig’s arrival on June 3, the return of a healthy Ramirez a day later and an improved bullpen have quieted the chatter about Mattingly’s future.
“We got healthy, started swinging the bats and started playing better. They preserved through this. The guys have hung in there,” the manager said.
Puig created a sensation on the field, with his .391 batting average in his first 38 major league games. He has 19 RBI and eight homers, and finished runner-up in fan voting for the last NL roster spot in the All-Star game. Puig spent part of the break partying at the Playboy Mansion and presenting at the ESPY Awards.
The 22-year-old Cuban defector had an effect in the clubhouse, with his enthusiasm rubbing off on his teammates.
“Yasiel brought a ton of energy to us and Hanley was right with him,” Mattingly said.
Ramirez was hitting .386 with 25 RBI and eight homers in 39 games, while Adrian Gonzalez hit .297 with 59 RBI and 14 homers before the break.
Puig and Ramirez’s averages are the highest marks for a Dodger player at the break, eclipsing Mike Piazza’s .377 average in 1995.
Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ lone All-Star, returns from the break with an 8-6 record and 1.98 ERA. Greinke is 8-2 with a 3.49 ERA, while South Korean rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu is 7-3 with a 3.09 ERA.
The four-day break came at a good time for some of the Dodgers. Puig was nursing a sore left hip, Carl Crawford didn’t start four straight games because of a stiff lower back, and Mark Ellis had a bruised left leg.
Kemp has struggled to stay healthy, with two stints on the DL this season. He has been shelved since July 6 with joint inflammation in his left shoulder, although Mattingly expects him back after possibly playing a couple of rehab games.
“Getting everybody back will be key,” Gonzalez said. “We got a pretty darn good rotation and the bullpen has settled in nicely. If we continue to play good baseball when we come back, we’re going to be in good shape.”
The Dodgers won’t play a division rival again until Aug. 30, when San Diego comes to town. Mattingly has cautioned his team that it’s a short second half and they can’t afford to start sluggishly. They scored just two runs in their last three games before the break.
“We haven’t really accomplished anything but get ourselves back in it,” he said. “We’re in position and kind of have it in our own hands. If we play well, we got a good shot.”