Dodgers do their best to convert nonbelievers


Kobe Bryant took his front-row seat behind the Dodgers dugout before the first pitch, and to his credit he stayed until the ninth inning. The sellout crowd at Angel Stadium serenaded him with “M-V-P” chants, and his team beat the home team.

“I come to a bunch of his games,” Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp said. “He can start coming to a bunch of our games. You’ve got to show some love.”

You’ve got to show the Dodgers some love, all of you. We keep wondering whether the Dodgers have the best team in baseball or just the best record, and the Dodgers keep wondering why we might not believe.


The Dodgers spotted the Angels one victory in the weekend series in Anaheim, in the game started by ace Chad Billingsley, then won the series anyway.

They won a series against the first-place Rangers, in Texas. They won a series against the first-place Phillies, in Philadelphia. They haven’t lost a series in a month.

“I don’t see anybody out there we can’t play with,” Manager Joe Torre said.

They have not just survived the suspension of Manny Ramirez. They have thrived. They’re 25-16 in his absence, the best record in the major leagues during that span.

When Ramirez returns next week, they’ll have their best hitter and their opening-day starter, Hiroki Kuroda, in the lineup for the first time since opening day.

“If somebody would have told me Manny would miss 50 games and Kuroda would miss a month and a half and we would be in first place,” coach Larry Bowa said, “I would have said, ‘Yeah, right.’ ”

They’re in first place, with a bigger lead than when Ramirez last played, with the biggest division lead in baseball.

They have a deep and versatile lineup. Kemp, who leads the team in stolen bases and has the second highest slugging percentage among the regulars, smartly dropped a bunt single to start a rally Sunday.

On Saturday, he batted ninth.

“It would be hard to put a better nine out,” said one American League scout, who is not authorized to discuss his evaluations publicly.

They have a stout defense. On Sunday, first baseman James Loney turned what could have been two throwing errors and a sharply hit grounder into three outs.

The pitching, well, that’s why you might hesitate to believe. In spring training, the Dodgers never identified Ronald Belisario, Brent Leach and Ramon Troncoso as their setup men. The coaching staff barely could identify them at all.

The trio has been terrific, but all three are on pace to blow past career highs for innings pitched, a screaming yellow caution flag.

This is the statistic that defines the Dodgers’ pitching concerns: Billingsley and Randy Wolf have completed six innings in 26 of 30 starts; the other starters have completed six innings in eight of 40 starts.

“You have to hope the starters go deep,” Bowa said. “It’s hard to get 10, 11, 12 outs from your bullpen every game.

“You need that security blanket. Some guy might show up with tendinitis in his shoulder. God forbid it’s Billingsley, Kuroda or Wolf.”

The Dodgers are interested in Jarrod Washburn, who has completed six innings in 11 of 13 starts for the Seattle Mariners. We don’t know whether the Dodgers would pick up the remaining part of his $10-million contract -- they traded prospects rather than pick up contracts last summer -- or even whether the Mariners would trade him.

They won’t trade him soon, anyway. Seattle is 2 1/2 games out of first place in the American League West.

That makes Clayton Kershaw’s performance the most encouraging aspect of Sunday’s victory. Kershaw shut out the Angels for seven innings, the first time in five weeks he has pitched so deep into a game.

He has the stuff of an ace, but this is his first full season in the majors, and the Dodgers keep reminding us he is 21. The pennant race does not care how old you are.

“I don’t want any crutches just because I’m young,” Kershaw said.

If he can reel off a few more starts like the one Sunday, the best team in baseball can stop fretting about an October rotation and start dreaming about one.