The sellout crowd packed Dodger Stadium on Saturday, ready to enjoy a warm evening of little consequence. The countdown to the postseason is on, and the results of August are becoming analyzed in the context of what they mean for October.
The Washington Nationals might be the most formidable team standing between the Dodgers and their first World Series since 1988. But the crowd at Nationals Park on Saturday went silent as Bryce Harper slipped on first base, collapsed to the ground, and grabbed his left knee in pain. The Nationals await an MRI examination Sunday that should reveal the severity of the injury to perhaps the best player in the National League.
The Chicago Cubs could stand in the Dodgers’ way too. The Cubs have played sluggishly all summer, but the defending World Series champions finally surged into first place July 26. Yet, barely more than two weeks later, the Cubs no longer are the sole occupants of first place in the NL Central.
They now are tied with the St. Louis Cardinals, the winners of eight straight games and the proprietors of the Dodgers’ greatest October nightmares. The Cardinals eliminated the Dodgers from the playoffs in 2013 and 2014, remembered in part for the home runs Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter hit against Clayton Kershaw, and for Joe Kelly neutralizing Hanley Ramirez by breaking his rib with a fastball.
At Dodger Stadium, the opponents were the San Diego Padres, who are playing for October … of 2019. The pesky Padres were trying to become the first team to win a series from the Dodgers since the powerful Nationals, way back in the first week of June.
Not so fast, Padres. Maybe Sunday.
On Saturday, the Padres had a two-run lead after five innings. The Dodgers scored five runs in the next three innings, and that made for a 6-3 victory. The Dodgers had come from behind to win for the 35th time this season. And, in an impressive footnote to this remarkable season, the Dodgers clinched a winning record with 46 games to play.
“We’re just focused on winning one game at a time,” Chris Taylor said. “It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true.”
In the seventh, Cody Bellinger hit his 34th home run, one shy of Mike Piazza’s Dodgers rookie record. Bellinger ranks third in the majors in homers, behind Giancarlo Stanton of Miami (41) and Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees (35).
In the eighth, Taylor added a home run, his 17th of the season.
Kenley Jansen worked a scoreless ninth for his third save in four days and 31st of the season.
The Padres took a 3-1 lead into the sixth, but the Dodgers scored three runs in the inning to take the lead for good. The Dodgers loaded the bases with none out, on a walk to Yasmani Grandal, a double by Chase Utley and a nine-pitch walk by Yasiel Puig.
“That was huge,” Corey Seager said. “That was a really mature at-bat.”
Seager had one of his own, a full-count single laced into right field. Grandal and Utley scored, tying the game. The Padres trapped Seager in a rundown between first base and second, then threw home trying to prevent Puig from scoring. The throw was bad, Puig was safe, and the Dodgers had a 4-3 lead.
The Dodgers went on to win, but not before a bizarre incident in the ninth inning. Utley asked second base umpire Ramon De Jesus to move out of his way, the kind of request commonly granted when a middle infielder says his view is blocked. Roberts said he was “shocked” that Utley’s request was denied and Utley was then ejected, after an apparent cross word that neither Utley nor Roberts would specify.
“Chase might have voiced his thoughts,” Roberts said.
Utley said “most umpires oblige” his requests to move but De Jesus had declined over the course of the game. Utley said he believed he had “a pretty good rapport” with most umpires but “clearly not with Ramon.”
Said Utley: “You live and you learn. I’ll learn from it. I hope Ramon learns from it too.”
As the Dodgers prepare for October, one of the story lines will be how the team sets up its pitching for the postseason. If Kershaw returns as expected, the Dodgers figure to use him, Yu Darvish, Rich Hill and Alex Wood in the playoff rotation. But Hyun-Jin Ryu and Kenta Maeda still could earn a spot, and both have pitched well lately.
Ryu entered Saturday’s game with a streak of 15 scoreless innings in a row, and a ERA of 0.95 since the All-Star break. But he needed needed 108 pitches to last five innings against San Diego.
He extended his streak of consecutive scoreless innings to 17, but the Padres scored one run in each of the next three innings. Ryu gave up seven hits, including a home run to Wil Myers, and three walks in five innings.
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin