It’s Oct. 15, 2015: the 27th anniversary of Kirk Gibson’s World Series home run. In a must-win game five, the Los Angeles Dodgers jumped out to a 2-1 lead over Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets. Dodger Stadium is rocking. A match-up between the Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, two teams who are quite familiar with postseason disappointment, in the National League Championship Series felt inevitable. Then it all fell apart – again.
The Dodgers bats were unable to muster anything else off deGrom and Zack Greinke lost the lead three innings later. New York postseason hero Daniel Murphy hit his third dinger of the series in the sixth to give the Mets an advantage they wouldn’t relinquish. Greinke would go on to leave the team in free agency and manager Don Mattingly would manage his last Dodger game as his team was eliminated in heartbreaking fashion for the third season in a row.
Now, Los Angeles meets Murphy again: this time in the nation’s capital against the Washington Nationals. This is the Dodgers chance to exorcise playoff demons. There’s a fresh managerial face in the dugout, in Dave Roberts, and a hungry roster that’s experienced playoff failure after playoff failure, and the popular narratives that come with it.
“Clayton Kershaw is no Madison Bumgarner in the postseason … his legacy is tarnished.”
“They’re like a bad version of the Yankees: without the championships.”
“Dodgers can’t buy a World Series.”
And countless other things have been said.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have been to the playoffs nine straight times without reaching the final stage (only winning a series one-third of the time). That’s tied with the Atlanta Braves and Oakland Athletics for the longest streak in baseball. Neither of those teams has come close to spending what this crew has. Perhaps that’s why the last three shortcomings have been the most painful.
Prior to being upended by Murphy and deGrom, the Dodgers swallowed back-to-back eliminations at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals. Fortunately for L.A., its loses to San Francisco last week forced the Cardinals to stay home.
But there’s a different vibe with these Dodgers this season. Despite the payroll, it’s felt as though the team has been an underdog all year. More “experts” believed the Arizona Diamondbacks would win the National League West than the Boys in Blue. San Francisco had an eight game divisional lead in June. The Dodgers had an MLB record 28 players on the disabled list, including season-savior Kershaw for two months. That was roughly $77 million on the DL, and players missed a league-leading 1,964 games, according to mangameslost.com.
The team was also swarmed with pressure. Roberts was thought to be in over his head early in the year. Andrew Friedman was constantly criticized for his conservative approach, especially after the Dodgers underwhelmed at the trade deadline. The rotation was a mess behind Kershaw before his injury. Yasiel Puig’s saga finally hit a breaking point when the polarizing outfielder was sent to Triple-A after a failed trade attempt.
But this time, the Dodgers exceeded expectations, they didn’t take a step back. They didn’t underwhelm. Ironically enough, the team got BETTER when Kershaw hit the DL. The Dodgers beat the odds to beat the Giants and win the National League West. Roberts may very well be the NL Manager of the Year. Friedman’s team was excellent and he retained nearly all his controllable talent. With Dodgers rumors swirling around Yasiel Puig, he has played inspired since being recalled from Oklahoma City. In fact, his incident with Bumgarner seemed to further bond the team. For possibly the first time in his career, Puig looks contained and welcomed by the locker room.
Los Angeles isn’t entering the postseason with a target on its back; the Cubs will absorb enough pressure for the entire National League. Instead the Dodgers can play with house money. Chicago has the best team in baseball and anything short of a World Series will be a colossal letdown. That’s not to say the Dodgers don’t expect to win it, but rather few outsiders expect that of them. This is the MLB-current best fourth consecutive playoff appearance for the franchise. The internal pressure is still present, but this team is more the hunter than the hunted. It has battled through more ups and downs than any of the past years. More so than ever, L.A. is prepared for the task at hand.
In an ironic twist of fate, L.A. heads to the playoffs facing a team hit with the injury bug at the worst possible time. Washington, which lost five of six against L.A. this season, lost Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos and Murphy to injuries. Could it be the very problem plaguing Los Angeles all season comes back to help it? Both teams have been in similar circumstances over the last few years: The Nationals lost the NLDS in 2012 and 2014, and also brought on a player-friendly manager to help turn the tide in Dusty Baker.
The series heavily favors L.A. on paper, which means absolutely nothing. What does hold relevance, however is the adversity this particular team has battled through in 2016. Every franchise has highs and lows, but the roller coaster season Roberts’ group has endured is the perfect way to brace for a playoff run. With more trials incoming, Los Angeles is ready to take them on full speed. It concluded Vin Scully’s career with a storybook ending. Now we’ll see if the Dodgers can keep the magic going.