After successful long road trip, can the Dodgers get better?

PHOENIX − They departed for their three-city, two-country, 5,400-mile, no day-off, bee-hived road trip with anxieties, questions and fears about whether this international star-studded team may be nothing more than a tease.

Well, 11 days later, the Los Angeles Dodgers returned home early Thursday morning proving once again they are the class of the National League West, and perhaps the most dangerous team in the land.

The Dodgers, after losing three consecutive series to sub-.500 teams in their last homestand, lived up to every bit of their preseason hype. They stopped in the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C., grabbed their passports for Toronto and returned to Phoenix where their season died a year ago. They not only won seven of nine games, but pummeled the opposition by a combined score of 53-19.

So, what’s wrong with the Dodgers?

Absolutely nothing.

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“People expect us to win every game,’’ Dodgers sensation Mookie Betts told USA TODAY Sports. “They expect us to hit homers every at-bat. It’s like we’re not humans.

“It’s a silly game. You’re going to have ups and downs no matter who you are. It’s inevitable. Remember, this game is based off failure, not success. It’s good to have those expectations though. The guys we have in here, the coaches, we have a lot of confidence.

“But we got to go play.’’

The Dodgers were relentless on their magical mystery tour where Shohei Ohtani was booed for snubbing Toronto, Yoshinobu Yamamoto was questioned whether he seriously considered signing in New York, and a beehive relentlessly awaited to attack their mojo until a Phoenix beekeeper came to the rescue.

The Dodgers’ bats exploded at the top of the order, while the middle and even the bottom of the order proved to be just as lethal. Rookie outfielder Andy Pages, starting every game of the trip, hit .364 with five extra-base hits and seven RBI in his last eight games. He was joined by Miguel Rojas and Enrique Hernandez, who started six of the nine games, with the bottom-of-the-order trio hitting .333 with a .386 on-base percentage.

“The whole lineup,’’ said catcher Austin Barnes, “just kind of took off.’’

The Dodgers scored at least eight runs in four of their games, and for the first time in 18 years went one entire game without striking out.

“Andy’s a big part of that [success],’’ Roberts said. “Once he got called up, the bottom part of the order solidified and became more productive. I think you look at these nine games and the production the bottom half of the lineup has given us, that narrative should be silenced a little bit. It’s been big, really big for us.’’

The Dodgers rotation yielded a 2.45 ERA on the trip, including the resurgence of Yamamoto. The same guy who was hammered for five earned runs in one inning in his major league debut in South Korea against the San Diego Padres pitched six shutout innings Wednesday and is now 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA and 0.97 WHIP since his debut.

“I think I’m being able to keep myself very calm,’’ Yamamoto said, “and that’s one of the biggest reasons I’m being able to execute my pitches. There are some differences between here and Japan such as the PitchCom, pitch clock. I think I’m getting myself used to it, and I’m feeling more comfortable.’’

The bullpen, which lost setup man Ryan Brasier with a strained calf Monday, was lights out on the trip, yielding a 1.11 ERA.

And of course, there is Betts, who had five multiple-hit games on the trip with a .512 on-base percentage. He’s the runaway MVP one month into the season, hitting a league-leading .377 with a .481 on-base percentage, 1.104 OPS, 49 hits, 29 runs and 26 walks.

“He just conducts professional at-bats,’’ Roberts says, “and that’s a perfect recipe for an MVP-type season.’’

Oh, and about all the concern and apprehension whether he could handle being an everyday shortstop after not playing the position regularly since high school?

The dude looks like he’s played there his whole life, and will continue being their everyday shortstop for the foreseeable future while Rojas slides to second base along with Gavin Lux.

“To his credit,’’ Roberts says, “he really raised his level of play. Certainly, right now, he’s an above-average shortstop. I grade him out as a solid B-plus. It’s hard to imagine that given where he started. It’s really, really impressive.’

When the Dodgers step on the field to play Atlanta for a three-game series Friday at Dodger Stadium, their fans may not even recognize this juggernaut.

Certainly, it hardly resembles the team that stunk up the joint up the last time they were in town.

“There’s an expectation when you come to the Dodgers,’’ veteran reliever Daniel Hudson says, “that you should win 60 to 70 percent of your games. The boo-birds come out, and it’s justified. I’d probably boo if I were a fan, too. We lost three straight series at home, seven of 10 games, and we played like [expletive].

“The expectations this organization has brought upon a good fan base. They expect us to win almost every game. When we don’t, we go on a little run where we lose seven of 10 games, everyone is surprised by it, including us.

“But this group is just so professional that we all knew we would turn it around at some point.’’

And somewhere along the way, on a road trip they thought would never end, it happened.

They jelled into the team they envisioned all along.

“You look back 11 days ago and we’re in a tough spot,’’ Roberts said. “We weren’t playing good baseball. To go on the road with an East Coast trip, to go north of the border, and then come back here and play a divisional rival and end up 7-2, it was a nice feat. Offensively, we were really good the entire road trip, and then the pitching, the defense, has been the best we’ve had all year. …

“Everybody likes playing at home, but sometimes it’s nice to get on the road, and it’s just the guys coming together.’’

The Dodgers, 20-13, suddenly have a bulging 4 ½-game lead in the NL West, with no one else in the division having a winning record.

“The Dodgers,’’ Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo says, “are just an unbelievable team.’’

The scary part is that they’re going to even get better. Walker Buehler, one of the finest talents in the game, is scheduled to start for them Monday for the first time since June 2022. Starter Bobby Miller and veteran reliever Blake Treinen are expected to be activated later this month. Three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw is scheduled to return after the All-Star break and starter Dustin May could potentially come back before the season’s conclusion.

“This team, we don’t let the external factors get to us,’’ said Dodgers closer Evan Phillips, who has eight saves and a 0.77 ERA. “We know we’re a good team. We know we have the talent. We’re not going to let anything get in our way.’’

It helps having that $700 million man hitting second in the order, too, with Shohei Ohtani.

Ohtani hit .250 on the trip with two homers and six RBI while striking out eight times and grounding into three double plays. He was out of the starting lineup Wednesday after striking out three times the previous night.

Yet, even when Ohtani proves to be human, and slumps like everyone else, his sheer presence is a huge factor.

“I’m not saying that Ohani is Barry [Bonds],’’ Roberts said, “but when I played against Barry, it was like he was always looming. Ohtani is just like that. I can’t imagine the stress it puts on opposing teams knowing that he’s looming. He’s always there. It’s got to be stressful.’’

The same goes for the Dodgers.

They are always looming, winning the NL West title 10 of the last 11 years, and already given a 99% chance to be playing in October again.

“On paper, people might think we’re going to go 162-0,’’ Hernandez said. “But in baseball, there’s a bunch of ups and downs and it’s all about figuring out a way to make the downs as short as possible.

“It took us a little second there to get going again, but we’re rolling right now.

“I don’t think we have even reached our best yet, but once that happens, look out, this team is going to be special.’’

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