The solution lurked beneath their noses, but as the Dodgers meandered through a 1-16 skid earlier this month, the group attempted a series of stunts to exorcise their demons.
Yu Darvish sprinkled salt in the Dodger Stadium dugout. Adrian Gonzalez carried the lineup out before one game. Someone stashed a statue of Jobu, the voodoo doll from “Major League,” in the bat rack. The clubhouse attendants served as bat boys. A member of the training staff took a fastball in the ribs as a motivational ploy.
None of the tricks worked. The answer resided inside their clubhouse, in the explosive bat of rookie sensation Cody Bellinger, in the depth of their lineup, in the stoutness of their pitching staff. The team suffered through weeks of futility before it became clear that rituals to ward off spirits, fictional totems and support staffers wearing bruises would not solve their woes.
The mantra the players often used — “Play better” — felt unfulfilling during an 11-game losing streak. But it felt obvious after Saturday’s 3-2 victory over the Nationals, the fourth in a row for the Dodgers, in which Bellinger supplied firepower, Rich Hill stymied his hosts and Yasiel Puig dived to save the lead.
“We’ve been playing extremely good baseball,” Hill said. “You can see the conviction behind every play, behind every swing, behind every pitch.”
After losing six series in a row, the Dodgers (96-52) are still “trying to get that swagger back” that sustained them earlier in the summer, manager Dave Roberts explained. Saturday helped. Bellinger tied the National League record for home runs by a rookie with his 38th blast of the season. He added an RBI single to pad the lead. Chase Utley doubled twice and scored both times. Hill struck out seven and permitted only a solo homer in five innings.
In the eighth, after a pair of ground balls evaded the grasp of shortstop Corey Seager, Tony Watson hunkered down to retire former Dodger Howie Kendrick and All-Star second baseman Daniel Murphy to preserve the lead. Puig sprawled across the grass in right field to steal a game-tying hit from Murphy.
“Hats off to Puig,” Watson said. “That was a huge out for us.”
In turn, the Dodgers reduced the magic number to win the National League West to five games. They have secured a series victory over the Nationals, the champions of the East, whom they could see in the second round of the playoffs.
The advantage started with a familiar source. Bellinger crushed a waist-high, 93-mph fastball from A.J. Cole in the second inning. He now shares the NL rookie homer record with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and former Boston Brave Wally Berger.
When the season began, he said after the game, he had hoped to join the Dodgers as a September call-up. He has become a force who carries them.
In the third, Utley sparked the offense from the leadoff spot. Utley had started Friday against Edwin Jackson, another right-handed pitcher, as the Dodgers appear to have settled on a platoon at second base. Utley will face the right-handed pitchers, for the most part, with Logan Forsythe set to play against left-handed starters.
Utley opened a rally by pulling a double into right field. Three batters later, Cole tossed a changeup on the outer edge of the plate to Bellinger. After the homer, Cole appeared wary of testing Bellinger inside. Instead, Bellinger countered by flicking an RBI single into left.
“They’re a great team with a great lineup,” Bellinger said. “To come out and win these two games, I think that means something.”
Hill cruised through the first three innings. He benefited from the zone of umpire Gary Cederstrom, who afforded both pitchers some generous strikes. Hill would not complain — he struck out six in the first three innings, and did not give up a hit until there were two outs in the fourth.
Hill could not put away Washington third baseman Anthony Rendon, a candidate for National League MVP. Rendon took a nine-pitch walk in the second. Two innings later, he launched a fastball into the Dodgers’ bullpen to give Washington its first hit and its first run.
Utley helped formulate a response in the fifth. He yanked another double into right. An infield single by Seager moved Utley to third. He scored on a sacrifice fly by Justin Turner.
Hill retired the side on a trio of grounders in the fifth. He had thrown only 74 pitches. But with a pair of runners aboard in the top of the sixth, Roberts removed him for a pinch-hitter. Despite the early exit, Hill was satisfied with the victory.
“We got the win today, and that’s all that matters,” Hill said. “The bullpen did a hell of a job. Everybody looks like they’re coming back to form.”