All across baseball, as the season winds down to its final three weeks, there are great teams hitting their strides, good teams maneuvering their way toward that upper tier and mediocre teams — most of them congregated in the American League wild card race — trying to claw their way to the postseason, where they would be comfortable in the knowledge they are already playoff-tested.
And then there are the Los Angeles Dodgers.
If ever there has been a team in baseball history that has pivoted from so utterly unbeatable to so bewilderingly inept in so short a time, the example does not leap immediately to mind.
On Aug. 25, a win over the Milwaukee Brewers left the Dodgers at 91-36, on pace for 116 wins, and with a 21 ½-game lead in the National League West. They were being spoken of, with some justification, as potentially one of the best teams in baseball history. Two weeks later, having lost seven straight — by an aggregate margin of 47-14 — and 12 of their last 13, they have seen their lead over hard-charging Arizona more than halved, to 10 games. On Thursday night, even ace Clayton Kershaw failed to stop the descent, getting shelled by the Colorado Rockies during a 3 2/3-inning start in a 9-1 loss.
“It’s bad right now,” Kershaw told reporters. “There’s no getting around that.”
Meantime, the Diamondbacks, who have won 13 straight entering the weekend, are the new Dodgers — the team no one in the NL wants any part of in October — having swept six games over their division rivals in a 10-day span and having enjoyed at one point an MLB-record span of 98 straight innings in which they did not trail. And guess who the Dodgers are lined up to face in the Division Series less than a month from now, presuming Arizona wins the wild card game?
The Dodgers’ brilliant play for nearly five months gave them enough of a cushion that their division lead is safe. Fangraphs.com’s algorithms still give them a 100 percent chance of winning the West (though BaseballProspectus.com has them down to 99.9 percent). They remain on pace for 106 wins, which would still be the most for any team since 2001, and still have a 5 1/2-game lead on Houston in the race for the game’s best overall record. They still boast the preeminent starting pitcher of his generation, in Kershaw; the most dominant closer in the NL, in Kenley Jansen; the presumptive NL rookie of the year, in Cody Bellinger; and a roster featuring no fewer than seven 2017 all-stars.
It’s also worth remembering that even the 2016 Chicago Cubs endured stretches of 1-9 and 5-15 — albeit in June and July, instead of August and September — before coming alive and winning the World Series.
“I think it’s a statistical improbability to go an entire season without getting punched in the face at any point,” Dodgers right-hander Alex Wood told reporters earlier this week. “We’ve been so good for so long that we have a rough patch for a week, and everyone is like, ‘Oh, my God, what is going on?’ It happens to everybody. The best teams in the world, this happens to … We’ll be fine.”
But at best, the Dodgers’ sudden skid has scuffed the veneer of invincibility that has enveloped them all season — can they still be considered the team to beat in the postseason if, for one thing, the Cleveland Indians recently overtook them for the best run-differential in the game? — and at worst it calls into question whether there is a fatal flaw to their team that has been exposed over the past few weeks.
While the Dodgers have been let down by all segments of their roster during their dry spell — including a disappearing offense that has scored three runs in its past four games and a bullpen that has started to find big trouble in the seventh and eighth innings — their biggest flaw, fatal or not, might be their starting pitching. Their only win over their 1-12 skid came when Kershaw beat the lowly San Diego Padres a week ago, and in the 12 losses, Dodgers starters — including recent all-stars such as Wood and Yu Darvish — were a combined 0-7 with five no-decisions and a 6.71 ERA
Over the course of a 162-game season, the Dodgers’ supreme depth in starting pitching — their rotation could still go seven or eight deep in solid MLB arms — is a massive advantage. But in the postseason? After Kershaw in Game 1, Games 2, 3 and 4 would likely be started by some combination of Darvish (who has a 4.50 since joining the team at the trade deadline), Rich Hill (who followed his near perfect game against the Pirates with a 3 2/3-inning, six-run dud against the Diamondbacks) and Wood (who went 10-0 with a 1.67 ERA in the first half, but has a 4.03 ERA in the second half and just came off a 10-day stay on the disabled list).
The Washington Nationals, whom the Dodgers visit next week at Nationals Park in a possible NLCS preview, would probably line up Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark — behind ace Max Scherzer — in the corresponding postseason games. That doesn’t mean the Nationals are a better team, but it is one reason the Dodgers aren’t definitively so.
“It doesn’t matter right now what the records are. It doesn’t matter what the talent-level is,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts told reporters Wednesday, following the last of the six straight losses against Arizona. “I believe in the talent in this room.”
In fairness, the Dodgers have been doing things in recent weeks that only a team with a massive first-place lead have the luxury to do. They have been extra-cautious in working star shortstop Corey Seager, their best player this season (as measured by wins above replacement), back into action since a trip to the disabled list for elbow soreness. They are giving rookies such as center fielder Alex Verdugo and pitcher Walker Buehler what amount to extended tryouts to see if they can be postseason assets. They have given their presumed postseason rotation extra rest between starts to keep them fresh. Perhaps the conservative approach has bled over into the Dodgers’ win-loss record.
But it isn’t the rest of September the Dodgers are worried about. The difference between 105 wins and 110 won’t be what cements their legacies. This is a team that has already won four straight division titles from 2013-16 without reaching the World Series, a team that has the highest payroll in the majors by far, a team for which anything short of a world championship would be considered a failure.
A month ago, the Dodgers of August had us wondering whether this could be the best team in history. Now, the Dodgers of September have us questioning whether they are even the best team this year in their own division. And only the Dodgers of October can provide the answers.
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