PHOENIX — Standing in a clubhouse that was about to become a champagne-soaked stage on which Yasiel Puig would break dance in front of hollering teammates, catcher A.J. Ellis reflected on how the Los Angeles Dodgers conquered the National League West.
“It’s amazing what talent can do,” Ellis said.
The Dodgers secured their first division title in four years with a 7-6 victory over the second-place Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday that served as a testament to that talent.
The World Series trophy might not be for sale. But the NL West crown was.
The Dodgers started the season with a record payroll of $230 million. That figure increased by another $10 million or so as baseball’s most free-spending owners continued to add reinforcements.
Over the six-month season, the small- to mid-market teams in their division had little chance.
“The collection of players here is unmatched in all of baseball,” Ellis said. “When you get those guys together in the right form, clicking together, it’s going to create amazing results.”
How amazing? The Dodgers erased a 9-game deficit in the standings on June 22 to become the first team in baseball to clinch a playoff spot, quickly going from last place to first. And they overcame a 6-3 deficit Thursday and won the game on an eighth-inning solo home run by Ellis.
Of all the millionaire players who bathed in alcoholic beverages at Chase Field, none were as important as Hanley Ramirez, who was acquired in a trade with the Miami Marlins last year.
Ramirez hit two more home runs, Nos. 19 and 20 in of his injury-shortened season — a three-run blast in the third inning that put the Dodgers ahead, 3-0, and a solo shot in the seventh that tied the score, 6-6.
“This is one of the best hitters in baseball,” Manager Don Mattingly said. “He can really hit. I want the whole world to see this.”
The world will see Ramirez on a stage on which he has never previously performed. Nine years into his major league career, Ramirez will be playing postseason baseball for the first time.
“It’s a long season,” Ramirez said. “We knew that we could come back and win the division. And we did it.”
Ramirez missed five of the last six games because of an irritated nerve in his back. He was replaced by Nick Punto at shortstop in the bottom of the ninth inning.
“Everybody knows I’m not 100 percent,” Ramirez said.
That being the case, Ramirez figures to get plenty of rest over the Dodgers’ final nine regular-season games. The Dodgers know they need him in the postseason.
“He makes us so much better,” Clayton Kershaw said. “From when he’s in the lineup to when he’s not, it’s amazing the impact he has. He’s one of the best.”
In the playoffs, the Dodgers will face the same expectations they faced in the regular season.
With players such as Ramirez, Puig, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford, no team in baseball has as deep a lineup. With Kershaw and Zack Greinke, no team has as dominant a pair of starting pitchers.
So, while the Dodgers celebrated, they were already looking ahead to October.
“It is a first step, obviously,” Kershaw said.
“I want to keep going,” Ramirez said.
Even Puig, who had little knowledge of major league baseball until he escaped Cuba last year, understood his team’s ambitions went far beyond Thursday.
“This is the best moment of my career until now — until we reach the World Series,” Puig said.
(c)2013 Los Angeles Times
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