Three surprise players have helped the Dodgers climb back into the NL West race

The Los Angeles Dodgers are starting to look like the team everyone expected them to be this season.

Wednesday night, the Dodgers outlasted the Texas Rangers in 11 innings (LAD 3, TEX 2) to improve to 35-32 on the season. Three games over .500 is nothing to brag about, but when you consider where this team was a few weeks ago, it's mighty impressive. The Dodgers were 16-26 on May 16. They've won 19 of their last 25 games to improve to 35-32.

The recent 19-6 hot streak combined with the Arizona Diamondbacks falling back to Earth means the Dodgers are only two games back of first place in the NL West. They were as many as nine games back in mid May. Their plus-56 run differential is third best in the National League and they lead the Senior Circuit with 86 home runs.

It takes a total team effort to climb back into the race that quickly -- one or two players can't carry you to a 19 wins in 25 games -- but three surprise players in particular have helped the Dodgers return to contention.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Los Angeles Dodgers
Max Muncy and Matt Kemp have helped the Dodgers get back into the NL West race. USATSI
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Matt Kemp CIN • LF • 27

When the Dodgers reacquired Matt Kemp in the offseason, the goal was to get under the $197 million luxury tax threshold, not add his bat to the lineup. The five-player trade with the Atlanta Braves essentially turned $45 million in 2018 into $45 million spread across 2018 and 2019, reducing the team's luxury tax payroll. That was the motivation for the trade.

In fact, after the trade with the Braves, the Dodgers reportedly spent the rest of the offseason -- and even part of spring training -- shopping Kemp.

ESPN's Jerry Crasnick reported in March the Dodgers "made every attempt to move" Kemp, but found no takers. There was even talk they would release him rather than give him a roster spot.

That, obviously, did not happen. Kemp showed up to spring training in great shape and he hit the snot out of the ball during Cactus League play, which earned him a spot on the team. Fast-forward to June and Kemp has been the Dodgers' best hitter this season, authoring a .335/.367/.555 batting line with 16 doubles, 10 home runs, and 41 RBI.

Furthermore, thanks in part to his slimmed down physique and slightly improved speed, Kemp has not been a detriment defensively. He is at +0 Defensive Runs Saved -- exactly average -- after posting minus-18 and minus-17 marks the last two seasons. Going from one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball to league average is a big improvement.

Keep in mind Kemp had a decent season at the plate last year, hitting .276/.318/.463 with 19 homers in 115 games. It's not like he'd been a below-average hitter the last few years. But this though? This has been a turn back the clock season so far for Kemp, who's doing a much better job hitting the ball hard and hitting the ball in the air. Do that and good things will happen.

Matt Kemp currently has a career low ground ball rate and a career high hard contact rate. FanGraphs

Corey Seager is out for the season with Tommy John surgery, Justin Turner missed the first few weeks with a broken wrist, and Cody Bellinger is not having the same impact as last season. Those are three key middle of the lineup hitters either hurt or underperforming. Kemp stepped in to give the offense a boost when those guys were down, but if the team had gotten their way in the offseason, he probably wouldn't even be on the roster right now.

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Max Muncy LAD • 3B • 13

By no means is Max Muncy a household name. He spent some time with the Oakland Athletics as an up-and-down player from 2015-16, and he hooked on with the Dodgers last year after being released at the end of spring training. Muncy spent last season in Triple-A and wasn't a serious roster consideration in spring training.

This season, after Logan Forsythe joined Turner on the disabled list in April, the Dodgers called Muncy up to man the hot corner and perhaps provide a little left-handed pop. He's done that and more. Muncy is currently hitting .277/.399/.631 with 13 home runs in only 46 games played. The current OPS+ leaderboard (min. 150 plate appearances):

  1. Mike Trout: 210 OPS+
  2. Mookie Betts: 207 OPS+
  3. Max Muncy: 181 OPS+
  4. Freddie Freeman: 181 OPS+
  5. J.D. Martinez: 171 OPS+

Based on his launch angle and exit velocity, Muncy's expected slugging percentage (.671) is actually higher than current slugging percentage (.631), so this isn't a dude who's been lucky and had a few wind-aided homers carry over the fence. Muncy has been legitimately crushing the ball. He went deep in four straight games prior to Wednesday night.

Muncy has been so good and so important to the offense that the Dodgers have even had him play second base just to keep his bat in the lineup after Turner returned. He went from afterthought -- Muncy didn't receive a September call-up last season -- to lineup staple when the Dodgers needed help in the wake of the Turner and Seager (and Forsythe) injuries.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Pittsburgh Pirates
Ross Stripling has pitched like an ace since joining the rotation. USATSI

The Dodgers have been hit hard by injuries this season, especially on the pitching side. Kenta Maeda returned from a hip injury to start Wednesday night, but the team is still without Clayton Kershaw (back), Hyun-Jin Ryu (groin), Walker Buehler (rib cage), and Rich Hill (blister). Former top pitching prospect Julio Urias is still on the mend following shoulder surgery as well.

As the injuries began to mount, the Dodgers had little choice but to shift long reliever Ross Stripling into the rotation just to give them innings. And Stripling has been marvelous. He's made eight starts this season -- several on a limited pitch count while he got stretched out -- and put up the following numbers:

  • 2.01 ERA
  • 1.01 WHIP
  • 55/5 K/BB (one of the five walks was intentional)
  • 50.4 percent ground ball rate
  • .235/.257/.353 opponent's batting line

Just to give you an idea how good he's been, in his eight starts Stripling has more or less combined Corey Kluber's K/BB ratio (10.30) with Charlie Morton's ground ball rate (50.8 percent). And it's not like he's facing bad competition either. In recent starts Stripling has shut down the Braves (two runs in 6 2/3 innings), the Washington Nationals (one run in six innings), and the Philadelphia Phillies (one run in seven innings).

Stripling has a scary injury history and it's fair to wonder how he'll hold up as the season progresses -- he's already thrown 60 innings this year after throwing 77 2/3 innings all of last season -- but, right now, he's done an incredible job solidifying the rotation while the Dodgers deal with all the injuries. He's been so good they'll have to at least consider finding a way to keep him in the rotation once everyone gets healthy (if that ever happens).

As good as they've been lately -- again, the Dodgers have won 19 of their last 25 games -- the Dodgers do look more vulnerable right now than they have been at any point in the last four or five years. Seager's out for the season and Kershaw is on the disabled list with a back injury for the third time in three years, and those are two huge losses. Are they still among the game's elite teams? Maybe, though it's not nearly as clear cut as it had been the last few seasons.

Los Angeles has been able to weather the early season storm and stay in the NL West race thanks largely to Kemp and Muncy, who've provided the offensive thump the Dodgers weren't getting from other players, and Stripling, who settled down a chaotic rotation situation. In a perfect world the Dodgers wouldn't need those guys to perform at this level all season to contend. They want everyone else to pick up the slack at some point. Right now though Kemp, Muncy, and Stripling have helped save the club from an even deeper hole in the standings.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for,,,... Full Bio

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