LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Dodgers waited 32 years to win the World Series again. The road to a repeat championship is never easy, and they head into the second half of the season hoping the worst of the bumps along the way are behind them.
A suspended starting pitcher, injuries and offensive struggles have conspired against them. It’s the first time since 2016 the Dodgers haven’t been in first place at the All-Star break.
But they’re close.
At 56-35, they have the second-most wins in the majors behind the rival San Francisco Giants (57-32). LA trails the first-place Giants by two games in the NL West, a division the Dodgers have won eight consecutive years.
“Considering what all we’ve been through, I’d say it’s pretty good,” All-Star first baseman Max Muncy said. “We haven’t played anywhere near the caliber that we are capable of playing.”
During one stretch, the Dodgers went 5-15. Injuries have knocked out starters Clayton Kershaw and Dustin May and shortstop Corey Seager, among others. The rotation took another big hit with starter Trevor Bauer going on paid administrative leave on July 2 after allegations of sexual misconduct and domestic violence.
“It’s been a rough one,” All-Star Mookie Betts said. “We’ve had a lot going on.”
Muncy has been a bright spot, hitting .270, with 19 home runs and 52 RBIs in the first half.
The Dodgers could be seeking a starter at the trade deadline because the bullpen games they’ve been forced into aren’t sustainable. May underwent Tommy John surgery in May, one of three pitchers on the team to do so this season.
Kershaw’s timetable remains uncertain as the three-time Cy Young Award winner recovers from left forearm inflammation. The team expects to get back injured reliever Jimmy Nelson soon.
David Price will join the rotation at some point after working out of the bullpen in the first half. “Whatever these guys want me to do, I’m willing to do for them,” he said.
Seager could be close to returning from a broken right hand. He spent the break in Arizona taking at-bats and if things went well, he may rejoin the team for its seven-game homestand beginning next week.
“This is when the really good teams start to ascend,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I expect us to be at the top when we finish this thing this year.”
The Dodgers visit Colorado for three games starting Friday to open the second half. The Giants travel to Los Angeles next week for the final time during the regular season.
Bauer, the Dodgers’ $100 million man, was 8-5 with a 2.59 ERA and team-leading 137 strikeouts in 17 starts before MLB placed him on leave.
Bauer’s agents have denied the accusations against him and said his sexual encounters with the woman were consensual. A court hearing is set for July 23.
The team canceled his bobblehead night in August and pulled Bauer’s merchandise from the ballpark. The Dodgers have mapped out their post-All-Star rotation without him.
Albert Pujols has exceeded expectations since being cast off by the Los Angeles Angels in May. The 41-year-old pinch hitter and occasional first baseman is a must-watch in every at-bat, whether he’s adding to his career home run total of 675 or tying Willie Mays on the all-time hit list with a clutch ninth-inning single.
Pujols has expressed his happiness at being a Dodger and chasing a World Series title, something he hasn’t won since 2011 with St. Louis. Besides his punch off the bench, he gives the clubhouse a fatherly presence, whether he’s talking baseball or life with his younger teammates.
He was a bargain pickup, too. The Angels are on the hook for Pujols’ $30 million salary this season, while the Dodgers pay him only a prorated league minimum.
BETTS AND BELLI
Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger struggled at the plate in the first half, although Betts is showing signs of coming around.
Betts passed on playing in the All-Star Game, citing nagging injuries. He’s hitting .256, with 13 homers and 38 RBIs in 79 games. He had a grand slam, three walks and an infield hit in the Dodgers’ 22-1 rout of the Diamondbacks before the break.
Bellinger is still trying to find the form that carried him to NL MVP honors in 2019. After an off year in 2020, he’s been limited to 34 games so far this season after suffering a hairline fracture in his left leg on a close play at first base in early April.
Bellinger is hitting .176, with four homers and 17 RBIs, and the Dodgers need his production to step up in the second half. Still, his defense in center field has been as valuable as ever, similar to what Betts provides in right field.
More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports