-- The questions abounded, and all of them began with the same word: why.

After all, the Los Angeles Dodgers' 31-year-old general manager, Paul DePodesta, had done the unthinkable at the July 31 trade deadline, dealing two-time all-star Paul Lo Duca, Guillermo Mota, Juan Encarnacion, Dave Roberts and Tom Martin to get Steve Finley, Hee Seop Choi, Brent Mayne and Brad Penny.

Why tinker with a team already in first place in the National League West, critics asked, particularly when the changes seemed marginal at best? Why give away clubhouse and fan favorites Roberts and Lo Duca, or Mota, an important part of the bullpen?

Much of the media and public were incredulous. As the newest Dodgers were introduced in a pregame ceremony Aug. 3, an unseen fan somewhere in the upper decks at Chavez Ravine wailed, "Lo Duca!"

The irony of the controversy is that it has diverted the spotlight from an unheralded team that is far surpassing expectations. Picked by many to finish as low as third, the Dodgers (66-45) are in first place, 61/2 games ahead of the upstart San Diego Padres in the NL West -- the largest divisional lead Los Angeles has held since 1994. For the first time in eight years, the Dodgers may be headed to the playoffs, where they have not won a game since winning the 1988 World Series.

Getting to the playoffs would mean "an awful lot," said Los Angeles Manager Jim Tracy. "In essence, it would bring to light an awful lot of things that have been done in the previous years to get us to this point."

Those previous years have been ones of frustration, mostly at the hands the San Francisco Giants. For the past three seasons, Los Angeles occupied first place at various times, but each year, the Dodgers fell out of contention, finishing third in 2001 and '02, and second in '03.

But where others saw a team faltering regularly down the stretch, Tracy -- who was named manager in November 2000 -- saw a team that was growing and excelling, particularly in light of its youth and injuries.

"My first year, we won 86 games, and we spent close to 700 days on the disabled list," he said. "In 2002, we won 92 games, and by the eighth of September, we had lost fourth-fifths of our starting rotation. And last year, we scored 17 less runs than the Detroit Tigers, and if I'm not mistaken, we won 85, and they lost 119."

"So did we slip away [down the stretch], or did this team for three years grossly overachieve to be in the position it was in?"

If Los Angeles has been overachieving, then this year is no different, only better.

With a new owner -- Frank McCourt Jr. replaced Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. just three months before the season, and DePodesta was hired Feb. 16 -- the Dodgers began the season on a tear, winning 22 of their first 32 games.

But from May 13 until June 30, Los Angeles staggered, going 17-26. By month's end, they were third in the division, one game behind the Padres, and 31/2 behind the Giants.

The low point, said Tracy, was June 24, the day the Giants completed a four-game sweep of the Dodgers in San Francisco.

"There was a general consensus, media-wise, that the air was going out of our balloon," he said. "We had a little get-together as a group at the end of June. There were a lot of points made in the meeting at that time."

In July, Los Angeles went 21-7.

The keys, said right fielder Milton Bradley, have been "chemistry, and belief in each other. Early on, we were playing above our expectations. A lot of times, teams do that to start the season. We had a down spell, but now we've picked it back up."

Shawn Green, who has transitioned from right field to first base this season, agreed.

"We're just a solid team," he said. "Good starting pitching. Obviously, [Eric] Gagne's a huge part of that. . . . The bullpen's solid. Defense is one of our strong suits, and then offensively this year, lots of guys are having good years."

Gagne's record-setting 84-game save streak ended July 5, but he has remained dominant, closing out his 34 other opportunities. At the plate, third baseman Adrian Beltre (.324, 31 homers, 77 RBI) and shortstop Cesar Izturis (.300) have had phenomenal years.

According to Tracy, the Dodgers have done three things consistently all season.

"We're as good as there is in baseball defensively," said Tracy, and the statistics back him up. Los Angeles has made just 47 errors, best in the major leagues. "The back end of our bullpen has been terrific and the other thing is that the role players . . . they have paid huge dividends."

The recently traded players, particularly Mota and Lo Duca, played integral roles in the Dodgers' success. Mota, a relief pitcher, had been one of Los Angeles' best setup men for Gagne.

Lo Duca's value went even deeper. Brought up in the organization, the catcher was one of the team's emotional and on-field leaders, and his loss was felt, particularly by Tracy.

Before a recent game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tracy switched his jersey number from 12 to 16 -- partly to give Finley the number he'd had with the Arizona Diamondbacks, partly to pay tribute to Lo Duca. "There's a guy that left here that means an awful lot to me," he said.

Green voiced similar sentiment.

"It's tough," he said. "They were popular guys in the clubhouse, and they were also popular guys with the fans and great players. Sometimes to get good quality players like we have . . . you're going to have to give stuff up."

Dealing Lo Duca and the others was not something DePodesta, who grew up in Alexandria, did lightly, conferring several times with his mentor, Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane.

"It weighed heavily on me for a couple days," he said. "And even after we made those decisions, it was pretty emotional, just having to tell each of those guys, knowing what the fallout was going to be publicly and everything else. It was very difficult."

Still, DePodesta explained, it was necessary.

"I really felt like we needed to do something with our team to be better equipped to play a short series," he said. "And I really felt like the top of our rotation, we could use a little bit more there. And I also thought we could add some more power. Both of those two things, I thought, would give us a better chance should we actually get into the playoffs."

Fans and media in Los Angeles have questioned why the front-running Dodgers traded several players, including popular catcher Paul Lo Duca.New Dodgers owner Frank McCourt Jr. welcomes newly acquired first baseman Hee Seop Choi and catcher Brent Mayne, left. Los Angeles also got outfielder Steve Finley and pitcher Brad Penny just before the July 31 trade deadline.