LOS ANGELES — After the Los Angeles Dodgers finished off their business-like sweep of the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday, the celebration in the visitors clubhouse at Chase Field was just like all the others you see this time of the year.
There was plastic curtained over everybody’s locker and draped over the clubhouse furniture. Many of the players wore goggles to protect their eyes from the white spray of booze spouting from every direction. There was loud, thumping music, and skittish media types wore cheap, drugstore-grade rain ponchos in a futile attempt to protect their clothes. A queasy mixed scent of champagne and beer permeated the air. This is how ballclubs celebrate.
“We’re in a good spot,” said Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner, who re-signed with the club as a free agent last winter. “We’ve still got a lot of work ahead of us. We signed back here to bring a championship back to L.A. This is our goal and we’ve got the first step out of the way. We’ll enjoy it and get ready for the next series.”
The Dodgers have had many such celebrations over the past half decade. They’ve celebrated five straight division titles, including the one they took this year with 104 wins — the most they’ve ever had since moving to Los Angeles. They’ve also won three National League Division Series, including one last season. If you’re keeping track, Monday’s fiesta was L.A.’s eighth since 2013.
That’s a lot of success for any baseball franchise. But this year, more than any other, the mid-October party seemed a bit obligatory. You’re supposed to celebrate such triumphs but, let’s face it, this was familiar terrain for the Dodgers. Now it’s a matter of applying lessons learned from past defeats.
“Every one is a little bit different,” Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said. “A seven-game series is not as much of a sprint. I don’t know what we take [from previous championship series appearances] other than we know what to expect.”
There was a moment during that Arizona party that was heavy-handedly symbolic of the missing pieces in the current trophy rooms of the Dodgers. While the players danced and pranced in the middle of the clubhouse, various L.A. luminaries and staff members congregated around the periphery, then gradually started to move closer, braving the spray, to offer their congratulations.
One of these was the great Sandy Koufax, who watched with a smile on his face, then went over and clasped hands with Kershaw. (Left hands, of course.) Watching this, there are a lot of thoughts that spring to mind from such a meeting of giants. Invariably, some of those thoughts have to be related to what Koufax has, and what Kershaw still seeks: the ultimate postseason triumph.
“The next series is the one our season has been pointing toward,” Kershaw said amid the celebration. “Hopefully we’ve got four more after that. We’re working on [the next] four wins.”
Kershaw and his teammates have never been better positioned to take those elusive final steps. They’ve been lying in wait all week, while the Chicago Cubs, their next opponents, have been crisscrossing the country, north, east, south and finally the long trek west.
All the cards are stacked in Los Angeles’ favor. It has taken the Dodgers a year, since last year’s LCS loss, to get back to where they started. So in many respects, the Dodgers haven’t yet accomplished a thing.
Dodgers over the decades
To understand what’s at stake for the Dodgers this month, you have to reconsider the history that has brought them to this point in time.
This is a story and perhaps a piece of analysis for another day, but did you notice that baseball’s final four this season happen to represent the four largest metro areas — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston — in the United States? And you might notice that means one of the four remaining possible World Series matchups includes what would mark the 12th Yankees-Dodgers Fall Classic, but the first one since 1981.
If that mega-market clash comes to pass, we might be in for another round of stories about the events that led to the Dodgers’ move west in 1957. It’s ancient history, but maybe not quite as ancient as you think, and this year marked something of a milestone on that timeline.
Game 2 of L.A.’s NLDS win was played on Oct. 7, the 60th anniversary of the day in 1957 on which the Los Angeles City Council voted 10-4 to approve the Dodgers’ proposed deal with the city. The next day, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley officially informed the National League of his intention to relocate, and hearts in Brooklyn were broken.
Before that Game 2, 87-year-old Roz Wyman was down on the field, shouting out the ceremonial words, “It’s time for Dodgers baseball!” Wyman was on that city council, a seat she first held at the age of 22, and was among the leaders in L.A. who first reached out to O’Malley so long ago.
The 60 years since have been by any measure a rousing success. The Dodgers have become as much a landmark in Los Angeles as they were in Brooklyn — perhaps a statement that is sacrilege to some. But who could doubt that the Dodgers are one of the marquee franchises in sports? This is a team that sold for $2 billion when the current ownership group took over in 2012, and has a local television contract worth more than a reported $8 billion.
The Dodgers have won plenty on the field, too, and more consistently than they did in Brooklyn. Sure, they had a remarkable run of success during their last 17 years or so at Ebbets Field, but in the 40 years before that, they were infrequent contenders. The magical Boys of Summer teams of the 1950s won several pennants and finally toppled the Yankees in the 1955 World Series, but that was the only title they won in Brooklyn.
This year, in winning 104 games, they’ve won more than they ever have in L.A., and more than any Dodgers team since those boys Roger Kahn wrote about so long ago won 105 in 1953.
“There has only been maybe one other team in the years since I’ve been here that has had the top talent that we have,” veteran outfielder Andre Ethier said. “But the positivity and confidence we have in each other is special. Pulling for each other. We have each other’s backs.”
In L.A., the Dodgers rarely have been out of the mix. During their first 31 seasons out West, the Dodgers finished first 10 times and second 11 other times. Contrast that with the 29 seasons since 1988. Since then, the Dodgers have finished first 10 more times, including their current streak of five straight NL titles, and have eight more second-place finishes. That’s pretty much the same pace, right?
Now consider this: That first 31-year span, through 1988, included nine NL pennants and five World Series titles. The 29 years since have produced zero and zero. Ethier has been around longer than any of the current Dodgers, even Kershaw, and has seen more than his fair share of playoff disappointment. And he knows it.
“I’m probably the most experienced playoff guy in baseball, with the most games without ever making a World Series appearance,” Ethier joked. “It’s not a good thing to brag about.”
Yet, that’s why this point in time has become so acute, not just for longtimers such as Kershaw and Ethier, but for the Dodgers as a franchise. They have been here, done that, several times. It’s not hard to argue that despite all their accomplishments this year, those 104 wins, that fifth straight division crown, that the Dodgers’ real season begins in earnest on Saturday, in Game 1 of the NLCS against the defending champion Chicago Cubs.
“We know what’s at stake,” Turner said. “We’ve been here before. We know we’re going to have a tough series ahead of us to get us where we want to go.”
All in front of them
All of this season, the Dodgers’ best case for advancing beyond the next round isn’t at all circumstantial, a result of the misfortunes of their possible opponents. There is the very real probability that this is one of the best Dodgers teams in their proud history, certainly one of the deepest. That surely can’t hurt.
“Every year there has been maybe some hole on the field, but this year there really hasn’t been,” Kershaw said. “Hopefully that pays off.”
We know the history of 100-win teams in the playoffs during the wild-card era. It’s not what you’d think it would be — only three of 23 prior to this season went on to win it all, including the Cubs last season. This is more a reflection of the format than it is on the 100-game winners. There is no earthly reason why a manager would want his team to avoid winning 100 games, even given this history. It just means the playoffs are hard.
“It’s tough to get back here and figure out a way to do it,” Ethier said. “Nothing is a given in this game. You can’t just say you’re going to do it every year. You can’t take this for granted. At the same time, you can see the group of guys we have on our team, guys who have been on winning teams.”
This year, the postseason format is proving to be a rare instance when the embedded advantages that go with being a top seed actually appear to be working in the Dodgers’ favor. First, the Diamondbacks survived a grueling matchup in their coin-flip NL wild-card game against Colorado and in doing so, scrambled their pitching staff for the Dodgers series.
All through those three Arizona-L.A. games, including Taijuan Walker‘s ill-fated one-inning outing in Game 1, it felt like Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo was never really able to get things lined up. There was a mediocre outing for Zack Greinke in Game 3. There was Robbie Ray struggling with his command after going in relief in the wild-card game. The Dodgers looked rested and each game seemed to unfold exactly as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts might have drawn it up.
Another thing that Kershaw said after the LDS clincher: “The Cubs and Nationals are two really good teams. We’ve faced them enough to know that. Hopefully they play about 30 innings the next two games, get really tired, and come to us on Saturday.”
The innings count didn’t work out that way, but perhaps the energy the Cubs expended to earn their shot at the Dodgers is even greater than what Kershaw might have hoped. The Cubs have in some ways been scrambling to recover from their long run to a title for the past calendar year. The Dodgers in other ways have been waiting, resting and planning for this very series.
“All the years we’ve been through, there are a few guys who have been here,” closer Kenley Jansen said. “All of these guys played here last year, and we know how close we got. We’ve been talking about getting to the playoffs. Now it’s our moment.”
In many respects, the Cubs are in even worse shape than the Diamondbacks after five brutal games against the Nationals. Jon Lester was used out of the bullpen on Wednesday. Jose Quintana pitched in relief on Thursday. Kyle Hendricks started Game 5, one night after Jake Arrieta went four innings in Game 4, a contest pushed back a day because of rain. Chicago’s fifth starter, John Lackey, was on the NLDS roster but hasn’t made a start since Sept. 27.
Chicago’s wild last game against Washington took a record 4 hours, 37 minutes to unfold. Cubs closer Wade Davis logged a career-high 2⅓ relief innings and needed 44 pitches to get those seven ultra-stressful outs. Manager Joe Maddon seems to have no confidence in any of his middle relievers. Then, on Friday, on top of everything else, the Cubs spent five unexpected hours in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
During all of this, the Dodgers have been conducting leisurely late-afternoon workouts at their home ballpark. They are healthy, though Corey Seager sat out Thursday’s workout to rest his back. Lefty Luis Avilan may be ready to return from a shoulder injury. The Dodgers have plotted a replication of their grinding approach against Arizona; their lineup is the last type of which a tired Cubs staff would want to see.
“Being able to set your rotation, not having to travel for the first two games of the series, I think they’re huge advantages,” Roberts said. “That’s a byproduct of the season we’ve had. To be at home, watch games, go through workouts — we’re in a pretty good place.”
Because of this rare luxury of time in October, the Dodgers can plot their NLDS rotation as Roberts sees fit. Kershaw will go in Game 1 — something that’s happened in only one of his previous four NLCS appearances. The order after that among Yu Darvish, Rich Hill and Alex Wood is something Roberts will decide based on matchups and preferences, not necessity. All are rested, and could go in any of the subsequent three games after Kershaw.
And, while Roberts would surely like to avoid it, having a rested Kershaw means it might be tempting to bring him back on short rest later in the series if needed. Or if Kershaw just takes the ball in Games 1 and 5, he might be available for a Game 7 relief appearance, if things get to that.
Even in a land of screenwriters, Roberts could not have scripted the circumstances of the coming series any better, though stagnation is always a concern in an adrenaline-fueled endeavor such as professional sports.
“When you’re talking about four days off, there is that little bit of fear for each team that is presented with that, to have that little bit of rust,” Roberts said. “But I think the focus that we have really puts us in a good spot.”
Really, the coming showdown with the Cubs has two narrative possibilities when it comes to the legacy of the 2017 Dodgers. Either they become the team that finally broke the drought, or they become the team that couldn’t. If it turns out to be the latter, then everyone will ask, if not this year, then when?
Given the crapshoot nature of the baseball postseason, that’s not a fair assessment. Heck, the Dodgers could slump next season, squeeze in as the second wild card, and go on a title run. That’s the nature of baseball’s system for determining a champion.
Nevertheless, the Dodgers have never put themselves in a better spot to bring home another title. So erase those 104 wins in the regular season and the three wins against the Diamondbacks. It’s all rolled back to zero now, and the real tale of the 2017 Dodgers will be told over the next three weeks.
“I can’t speak to the disappointment in past years, but I can speak to the disappointment last year,” Roberts said. “And it was very disappointing. Our guys this year, as they were last year, are focused.
“It does help when you’re the winningest team for that current year. We’ve shown how good we can be when we play our type of baseball. We’re a confident group. And we understand that we still have a lot of work to do.”