In a dozen days, with a 1-11 skid, the Los Angeles Dodgers have gagged away the mystique they spent all season building. And done MLB a favor.
The Dodgers’ only win was a 1-0 escape behind Clayton Kershaw, who also started for them late Thursday . The guardrails on Topanga Canyon might not keep this careening rig on the road.
Sports Illustrated ran an Aug. 22 cover story headlined: “The Dodgers Might be the Greatest Team of All-Time.” At that moment, the Dodgers were on pace for 116 wins, which would tie the all-time MLB record. In fact, only two teams in 62 years have even topped 109 wins. Four days later, The Slump began.
The Arizona Diamondbacks just finished home-and-home three-game sweeps as the Dodgers crumbled by a total score of 40-13. Right now, the Dodgers aren’t even the dominant team in the NL West — the Diamondbacks have won 13 in a row and captured the season series vs. the Dodgers 11-8, outscoring them by a whopping 28 runs.
Arizona’s ownership has just gotten stronger. On Labor Day, the Diamondbacks’ J.D. Martinez, acquired in trade for the stretch run, hit four titanic homers, two to right and two to left, in a 13-0 win at Dodger Stadium.
In October, if Arizona can win the scary one-game wild-card playoff, these two teams would meet in the division series. Arizona’s Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray have been two of the game’s dominant starters. By then, the Diamondbacks expect to have MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt — who missed the recent slaughter at Dodger Stadium — back in the lineup. Anybody want to take those short odds on a first Dodgers title since 1988?
The cheering you hear is in Washington and Cleveland, where the Nationals and Indians, who lead their leagues in ERA since the All-Star Game, are both hot and far from displeased at the L.A. tumble. For the past decade, top pitching in top form at the right time has been the biggest key to winning titles. They have it.
The Indians have won 15 games in a row. The Nationals, finally getting healthy, are tied with the Cubs for the NL’s best record since the all-star break. Washington’s top 10 pitchers — five starters and five best relievers — have an almost unheard of 2.24 ERA since the break.
The defending champion Cubs, Diamondbacks, Red Sox and Astros — the other teams most likely to win the World Series if the Dodgers don’t — also would like to welcome the Dodgers back to earth. The baseball season, October version, is again alive, well and wide open.
Best team in history, bah, humbug. Amazing how a losing streak will loosen tongues. This week, various baseball people have said to me, after praising the Dodgers’ great season, “Nobody’s afraid of them. . . . The Dodgers aren’t that good. . . . How good can a team be that has to platoon at so many spots?”
Nationals Manager Dusty Baker, an ex-Dodger star, often helps himself fall asleep after games by watching late-night games from the West Coast. Recently, that’s been pieces of the Dodgers-Diamondbacks battles. “They play each other all the time, and they know just how to combat one another,” said Baker, sure to be taking notes.
“I like to get hot in the last week of the season,” Baker added. “Steam runs out. How long can you stay hot? Is L.A. going to stay cold forever?”
Obviously not. But damage to self-image, especially late in a season, can be hard to erase. And for those of us staying up into the early-morning hours to watch this L.A. slump, the looks on the Dodgers’ faces tell their own story. As the Dodgers have seen a 21-game lead over Arizona cut in half — shrunk by 10½ games in 12 days — they have played like a team feeling pressure, being hunted, even though they are in a never-be-caught position. After a flyout Tuesday, Yasiel Puig, still in the batter’s box, smashed himself in the center of his batting helmet with his bat.
Sports have windows — a period of years when a top team has a clear chance to win a title. But individual seasons also have doors of opportunity. Sometimes one team so dominates the regular season in wins, accolades and aura that its shoulders seem to block the entire width of that championship door. Last year, it was the Cubs who clearly seemed the best team of 2016. Yet they trailed the NL Championship Series and faced three elimination games in the World Series. It’s tough, even if you’re great. But it’s better to be the beast blocking that doorway.
This year, the Dodgers looked even better in the regular season, more dominant, almost unbeatable. It’s amazing that such a perception can change so fast.
For months, the Dodgers were praised for having 10 starting pitchers, though many didn’t go past five innings, and lots of depth to compensate for injuries. Now the other side of the coin — both sides true — appears. The Dodgers lack dominant starters after Kershaw. In the past 30 days, the ERAs for their starters other than Kershaw are modest at best: Alex Wood (3.60), Rich Hill (4.25), Yu Darvish (6.16), Kenta Maeda (4.75) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (3.81).
They also have had a setup man, Pedro Baez, in a major meltdown. And they haven’t gotten much from the lefties they acquired at the trade deadline. All that misery leaves L.A. just 45 games over .500 entering Thursday. So don’t worry about the Dodgers. Just be glad for the rest of MLB that we can spend the postseason without the sense that it will just be a prolonged L.A. coronation.
“Every team wants to personify strength. ‘You can’t beat us.’ It’s an advantage if other teams really think you’re better than they are,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “Every team wants that and doesn’t want to squander it.”