IS RIVERA THE KEY TO LA’S TURNAROUND?

The Los Angeles Dodgers have awakened from a season filled with dismal news on and off the field to become the hottest team in baseball. The ownership woes are still unresolved, but just about everything on the field seems to have fallen into place.

With an extra-inning win over the Braves tonight, LA is now two games under .500 at 68-70 and they are now closer to the 2nd-place Giants (4 1/2 games) than the Giants are to 1st-place Arizona (6 games). Over the last 45 games, the Dodgers are 26-19 while the Giants are the reverse, 19-26. The division is out of the question at this point for LA, as Arizona has been 29-16 over that same stretch, but maybe, just maybe, they can catch their long-time rivals.

The Dodger bats have fueled this turnaround as they have finally started putting up the runs needed by the already strong starting pitching. Since the All-Star break, the Dodgers have raised their runs-per-game from 3.7 to 4.2.

OF/1B Juan Rivera was picked up from Toronto for a player to be named or cash at the All-Star break while OF Marcus Thames was designated for assignment. Thames was one of many who patrolled LF for the Dodgers in the first half of the year with very little production from among the group. It wasn’t a brilliant move by GM Ned Coletti, nor was it a gamble, given that he gave so little in return.

But it worked.

So far, anyway. Rivera has knocked in 27 runs in 40 games with the Dodgers and seems to be in the middle of many rallies that have become commonplace. A five-run defecit was erased in Atlanta last night with Rivera providing 3 RBI in LA’s 8-6 victory. The Dodgers are especially hot over the last 15 games, scoring 95 runs, the most in the majors.

Rivera’s presence has definitely been a boost, but two other factors are also in play. One is the change in hitting coaches on July 20th, from Jeff Pentland to Dave Hansen. The other is the revival of 1B James Loney. It is hard to say at this point if one has to do with the other.

The Dodgers have been beseiged by injuries all season and their lineup has been through many changes. It may not be the fault of Pentland that seemingly everyone but OF Matt Kemp was ineffective to that point, and Hansen may not be the guru behind the improvement. But it sure looks good on Hansen’s resume as he looks to have the “interim” tag lifted from his title.

Loney has been an enigma for the Dodgers. His fielding has always been steady and even spectacular, but his power at the plate has declined over his five full seasons, with his batting average sinking with it. A .331 average with 15 HR in only 344 AB in 2007 hinted at a middle-of-the-order bat to go along with fellow youngsters Kemp and OF Andre Ethier. But his power numbers have dropped or stayed the same each following season and he sits with 9 HR at this point after a recent outburst. (Hot as he is, it is likely he will pass last year’s total of 10).

It has been said that Hansen is preaching the same message of patience at the plate that Pentland did. But, for whatever reason, the Dodgers didn’t follow the advice in the first half and are seeing more pitches since the change. Manager  Don Mattingly thinks that the change was a wake-up call for the offense, that they took it to heart that they essentially got Pentland fired.

Meanwhile, Kemp continues to swing an MVP-caliber bat and has some muscle around him in the lineup. The patchwork of infielders that have filled in after injuries to Juan Uribe, Casey Blake, and the departed Rafael Furcal (traded to St. Louis) have been good table-setters at the top of the order and tough outs at the end of the lineup. Aaron Miles, Jamey Carroll, Justin Sellers and Dee Gordon have all made strong contributions this season.

Maybe not having Rafael Furcal in the leadoff spot helps too, though he missed so much time with injury it is hard to point to that as a big change.

Time will tell if this team can sustain this offensive output. But at the moment, Rivera is getting a lot of credit and Hansen should get a full-time gig out of the uprising that has taken place on his watch. The playoffs are out of reach, even if they stay hot to the end. But in a year that has had so many dark clouds over it, to pass up the Giants and finish in 2nd place would have to feel great all the way around.

HOTSTOVEHEAT on TWITTER