CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

Dodgers' successes seem sweeter after their early struggles

Yasiel Puig and Don Mattingly are among those who deserve credit for the turnaround of a team that will return to a Dodger Stadium featuring a new pitching mound.

Yasiel Puig could hit a home run with the jawbone of a donkey. Clayton Kershaw could throw a marshmallow past a Cub Scout troop.

These Dodgers aren't mythic, but they have their mythic moments. A cynic would complain, "Why not?" in that grunty, gastrointestinal way cynics have. "Why shouldn't baseball's best-paid team be excellent?"

Let me count the ways. Bad chemistry. Rampant injuries. Lackluster effort.

For the first months of the season, these Dodgers seemed to be just another over-hyped L.A. team. Then someone waved a wand, maybe Don Mattingly, maybe Old Man O'Malley from above, and suddenly they had all those missing ingredients — swagger, health, pride.

Credit Puig for some of the spark, credit Mattingly for holding the whole hot mess together. Don't discount Hanley Ramirez either, or any member of this oddball cast of future greats and future nobodies. Even the scrubs have risen to the occasion.

So now the Dodgers win games in every possible way, many of them dramatically. Twenty-five years after their last World Series title, these Dodgers seem on the verge of something mythic.

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I like well-worn things almost to the exclusion of everything else, and a baseball team at this stage of the season is like old ship brass. The good ones are beginning to show their shine, the bad ones are beginning to crack.

Somehow the Dodgers' success seems all the sweeter since they struggled early, persevered through rough stretches, found a formula, thanks in part to this crazy Cuban escapee.

Still, many fans aren't throwing confetti yet.

"Let's face it," says Lolly Hellman, "they are the Dodgers ... our bums and as much as I love them, they have led me down this road before."

Hellman is my modern-day Hilda Chester, an irrepressible season-ticket holder and L.A. native who finds all the best things in life — joy, humor, panache — represented in her favorite ballclub.

"I do not want to put the harry-mockers on them, so I just try to enjoy each game," she says. "I do not pray for future wins, and even if they screw up I will love them madly no matter what."

And that's why I adore Lolly Hellman, even though I have no real clue who Harry Mockers is. Might've pitched for the Pirates.

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Only Genghis Khan was better on the road than these Dodgers, who now come home to face the Tampa Bay Rays, then the New York Mets. To be sure, the schedule has been gentle to them; opponents since July have a .493 win percentage (not including Wednesday's outcomes).

They also come home to a new pitching mound, the old one scraped away for last weekend's soccer games. The old mound, about five years old, was so tightly muscled that it had to be jack-hammered out — took about three hours.

Savvy fans are wondering what happened to the old pitching rubber, and can they get their hands on it. They know the last pitcher to toe it was ... quick, can you remember back an entire week? Well, the last pitcher to push off that pitchers plate was Mariano Rivera. It is now stored safely away in the team's archival closet, for later display.

So since Sunday morning, grounds guru Eric Hansen has been installing a new pitching mound, the first time anyone can remember having to replace one in the middle of the season.

Hansen ordered 6 tons of clay for the job, 250 bags in all, of a firm but flexible blend used to build mounds, batter's boxes, even bocce ball courts.

Basically, building a pitcher's mound is like building a giant, round adobe brick. An inch at a time, grounds-crew members Jordan Lorenz and Jaime Huezo spread out the moist clay, soaked it with a hose, then ran a power tamper over the loose soil. After that, they hand tamped it, then ran it over with utility vehicles to compress the clay.

"You've got to get the air out," says Hansen, one of the deans of the industry. "That's why it takes so long.

"If we layer it properly, we shouldn't have a problem," Hansen says.

Hansen used a special tool called a slope board and laser levels to get the right incline toward home plate. By midweek everything was on schedule, even slightly ahead.

And so begins this storied stretch run, for a remade team on a rebuilt mound, for a co-owner they call Magic.

Yep, something's in the air this season. Like Lolly, just kick back and enjoy it.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

Twitter: @erskinetimes

 

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