PHOENIX — The Los Angeles Dodgers’ company line is to forget the past, resist the temptation to dwell on what has already happened, look only to the future — the immediate portion of which points toward Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium on Saturday. It is better that way. The future seems unlimited for a team that was the best in baseball all season and is playing like it again. The past, on the other hand, only brings pointed and worrisome questions.
Such as: How could a proud, storied franchise with five straight division titles have so far failed to reach a World Series in that span? How could this 2017 team, which just steamrolled the Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-game sweep of the Division Series, have looked so awful in losing 16 of 17 games less than two months ago?
But champagne and beer, whether poured down one’s own gullet or dumped over each other’s heads, seem to have a way of loosening lips, and so the Dodgers, as they celebrated their sweep of the Diamondbacks on Monday night in the visitors’ clubhouse of Chase Field, were suddenly willing to gaze back into the past with an introspection they had resisted in recent days.
“You kind of get the sense we’re back in June or July,” said starting pitcher Alex Wood, referring to the stretch when the Dodgers were at their best, going 41-10 in those two months and building a division lead that reached 21 games by late August. “We have that focus again, every single player, on every single pitch. You feel that energy again, that tunnel vision. Going in [to the playoffs], you don’t know how it’s going to be, especially after going on that little cold streak, but it seems like everybody’s really focused and locked in again.”
In another corner of the clubhouse, Andre Ethier, the longest-tenured Dodger, stood against a wall and contemplated the Dodgers’ recent history of coming up short in October, which by extension, is also his own history.
“I must be one of the most playoff-experienced guys without any World Series experience,” said Ethier, 35. “Eight playoff appearances in 12 years, without being in a World Series. It’s not something to brag about.”
Ethier considered the kindergarten math — four more wins to get to the World Series, eight to win it all — and could say with more conviction than any other Dodger how big those numbers truly are.
“It’s a long road,” he said. “Eight wins after this doesn’t seem like so much, but I know from experience it’s a long road just to win four more.”
Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ ace left-hander, was unwilling to concede there were lessons to be learned from the past playoff failures — “Every one’s been a little different,” he said — but he made one point that resonated: “Every year, there’s been some kind of hole,” Kershaw said of those recent Dodger rosters. “And I feel like this year there really isn’t.”
It certainly would have been difficult to discern a hole in the Dodgers’ construction during their Division Series sweep, in which they outscored the Diamondbacks by a 20-11 margin and excelled in every phase of the game. Their starting pitchers outpitched their opponent in each game, their bullpen secured critical outs with minimal drama, and their offense was back to being the relentless, powerful, wear-the-pitcher down unit it was at its midsummer peak.
“That’s the way our offense ticks,” all-star third baseman Justin Turner said. “When we’re seeing a lot of pitches and taking walks and getting guys on base, that’s when we’re at our best. It’s not about getting 15 or 20 hits a night. It’s about taking our walks — six, seven, eight walks. And you get six, seven, eight hits to go along with it, that’s a pretty good night.”
It is possible to make the case the Dodgers, at least as they appeared against the Diamondbacks, are even better now than they were at their regular-season best — which is saying something, considering they were 55 games over .500 at their high-water mark (91-36 on Aug. 25) and were on a 116-win pace at that point.
The Dodgers of midsummer didn’t have Yu Darvish, for starters. Acquired at the July 31 trade deadline from the Texas Rangers — precisely for moments such as these — Darvish, a four-time all-star, delivered a gem in Monday night’s clincher, reduced to a five-inning stint only because the Dodgers’ bullpen is so deep and functional these days. Kershaw called Darvish’s outing “the best we’ve seen him” since the trade.
“The stuff has been there at times, but the command he showed [Monday night] was second to none,” Kershaw said. “Getting ahead, sometimes with off-speed [pitches], and then throwing [fastballs at] 97, 98 [mph] — it was very, very impressive.”
In their few weeks together, Kershaw has at times counseled Darvish not to overthink his craft — to simply trust his ability and go right after opposing hitters. “Any time you come to a new organization, there’s a lot to think about, about how you should get guys out. But when I’ve watched him, his stuff is unbelievable. It’s not a matter of what [pitches] he should throw, and when. It’s having the confidence to say, ‘I’m going to get you out, every single time.’”
Just as the addition of Darvish has both strengthened and deepened the Dodgers’ postseason starting rotation, the pitcher he bumped out of that rotation — right-hander Kenta Maeda — has done wonders for a late-inning bullpen unit that struggled late in the season to piece together the outs between the starting pitcher and dominating closer Kenley Jansen.
Maeda was superb during the Division Series, capped by a 1-2-3 eighth inning with two strikeouts Monday night, and afterward his teammates raved about Maeda’s selfless acceptance of his new role.
“I can’t say enough about Kenta Maeda, stepping out of his comfort zone and going to the bullpen,” Turner said. “This team feels a little different [than recent Dodger teams]. This is a group of 25 guys who understand what it takes to win games.”
By the end of a grueling, six-month, 162-game regular season, baseball folks like to say, water finds it level, and a team is exactly what its record says it is. And if that’s the case, the Dodgers, for all their historic highs and alarming lows, will gladly occupy the rarefied space they carved out for themselves following a 104-win season and three more wins in the past week.
“At the end of the day we won 104 games, the most of any Dodgers team in L.A.,” Wood said. “You take a step back and look at it from that perspective, as a whole year, and you realize how special a year it was for us. It just happened those losses came in one cluster. But we’re locked back in and playing good baseball, and we’re excited to play whoever we play next.”