Up-and-down Dodgers face make-or-break stretch

The Dodgers were right there -- which means Game 7 of the World Series last fall at home against the Astros -- and were that close to winning their first championship since 1988. Now they are here. 

Here is a half-game out of first place in the National League West going into Wednesday's games, feeling as if they are in a virtual tie with the D-backs and Rockies. But it's complicated how they got here. You don't think so? They started 16-23.

The other day, I asked manager Dave Roberts for three words to describe his team's journey to the first week of September:

"Tested. Unselfish. Focused," Roberts said. 

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This was right before the third-year manager penciled out his lineup card for a game against the Mets at Dodger Stadium, which included David Freese at first base, Brian Dozier -- who was in Minnesota at the start of the season -- at second base, and Manny Machado -- you know where he was at the start of the season -- at shortstop. If you saw those three in the same Dodgers infield when you were making out your fantasy team at the end of March, raise a hand and call out your name.

So, yeah, a lot has happened between there and here for Roberts and the Dodgers. 

Clayton Kershaw was on and off the disabled list earlier in the season due to lower back discomfort and left bicep tendinitis. Star shortstop Corey Seager was lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery after playing in just 26 games. Justin Turner, who makes up so much of the team's heart and soul, suffered a left wrist fracture and a right groin strain, missing a quarter of the season. All-Star closer Kenley Jansen suffered an irregular heartbeat during a series in Denver last month, and when he returned from the DL, Jansen had a stretch where he didn't look as if he could have gotten either you or me out. (He'll miss the series in Denver this weekend after his cardiologist recommends Jansen not travel with the team.)

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Yasiel Puig spent time on the DL. Logan Forsythe and Chase Utley couldn't hit. Cody Bellinger, who belted 39 homers in 132 games last season, had hit 21 in 138 games going into Wednesday's game against the Mets. Bellinger even took a seat against Mets left-hander Jason Vargas -- whom you or I could hit -- on Tuesday, having been replaced in center field by Enrique Hernandez.

So now, and maybe for the rest of the way, the Dodgers' batting order is organized around Machado, who has been solid since the club acquired him from the Orioles on July 18. Machado has hit nine homers with 24 RBIs while compiling a .273/.351/.488 slash line over 43 games with Los Angeles. 

"[I think] he's been great," Roberts said of Machado. "And his defense at shortstop has been much better than expected."

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Through it all, the Dodgers have given themselves a chance in wide-open races for the NL West and NL Wild Card to make it back to the postseason. They are a half-game out in the division and one game out of the second NL Wild Card spot. 

Could the Dodgers win the NL West for the sixth straight year? Absolutely, even after you did think they might have played themselves out of things after 40 games. Could they solidy an NL Wild Card spot? Sure, even though they don't want that kind of consolation prize and assuredly don't want to play in a winner-take-all NL Wild Card Game. 

Those are possibilities for Roberts' club. So this is a possibility: A team that was supposed to be one of the very best in baseball -- and, hey, they still could be come October -- could end up without a ticket to baseball's big dance. Roberts believes the Dodgers are going to play their way into the postseason. He talks about providing "a lot of entertainment all the way through October." But if the season ended today -- good thing it doesn't, not with the kind of September at which we are looking -- the Dodgers are out.

They don't know for sure if they're going to make the postseason or how they're going to make it, even if Roberts clearly believes his team is ready to play its best baseball the rest of the way.

The postseason is always more interesting and more glamorous when the Dodgers are in it, that's for sure. They came as close as you can come last season, and probably would have beaten the Astros if Kershaw had been able to hold a four-run lead in Game 5 before that back-and-forth tussle turned into everything except a Netflix series. The Dodgers were there at the end, with Game 7 at home and a chance to write a Hollywood ending for themselves for the first time since Kirk Gibson's club did that in 1988. 

Now they are here after going through as much this season as any other contender. They could win their division. They could claim an NL Wild Card spot. Or they could lose everything in three weeks. 

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