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Dodgers hoping to snap out of funk as crucial stretch approaches

Dodgers hoping to snap out of funk as crucial stretch approaches
Kenley Jansen reacts after giving up a two-run homer to Paul DeJong of the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday. (Harry How / Getty Images)

The words will sound like a rallying cry or hollow rhetoric. The next five weeks will decide how history judges the 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers, a group Kenley Jansen spoke for in the wake of another calamitous defeat Wednesday.

“It sucks losing,” Jansen said. “It sucks going 4 1/2 back. It sucks being in third place. But you’ve just got to be a man and deal with it, and step up Friday. We all need to step up.”

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Will they? Can they? Is it already too late?

The Dodgers rested Thursday as a crucial stretch of baseball awaited them. At this juncture, trailing two teams in the National League West and three for entry into the wild-card game, each night carries sizable implications. But the Dodgers (67-61) cannot afford to stumble across these next nine games, which include five against the cellar-dwelling San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers before a four-game series against the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium.

A hot streak would boost the team’s chances of capturing a sixth consecutive division title. A continuation of this week’s cold spell, which included a sweep at home by St. Louis, might sink the season.

Snake-bitten by injuries and inattention early in the season, the Dodgers took flight in June and July only to plunge toward mediocrity with an 8-12 record in August and nine losses in their last 12 games. The lack of trade-deadline additions to the bullpen has backfired, and the production of the added infield duo of Manny Machado and Brian Dozier has not offset an offensive funk.

The skid has stunned observers both outside and inside the organization. Manager Dave Roberts has insisted there are no easy fixes for a team-wide slump. Andrew Friedman, the team’s president of baseball operations, cited a lack of success with runners in scoring position as the source of the hitting woes, but conceded a simple solution did not exist.

“We felt like our offense was going to be a real carrying strength for us,” Friedman said Thursday. “And we still believe that, looking forward. But it certainly has not been in the last few weeks.”

The outlook is bleak. With 34 games left in the season, the Dodgers are on pace for 85 wins, the lowest total for the team since 2011, a season played amidst the chaos wrought by the McCourt bankruptcy. If the season ended Thursday, Dodger Stadium would not host playoff baseball for the first time since 2012.

The projection systems no longer believe in them. Heading into Thursday’s games, FanGraphs gave the Dodgers a 34% chance to win the division, with a 57.3% chance to make the playoffs. Baseball Prospectus was even more skeptical: A 22.1% chance for the division, and only a 40.3% chance of even qualifying for the postseason.

The losing has heightened the scrutiny on Roberts, who was National League manager of the year in 2016 and led the club to the World Series in 2017. Roberts has struggled to wring results out of his bullpen and his lineup this month. Friedman offered a vote of confidence for his manager, who has an option for 2019 in his contract.

“I think Doc and our coaches have done a tremendous job of continuing to stay positive and helping to prepare our guys go into games,” Friedman said. “I think we all share in the optimism that that day is going to be the day that things turn.

“Obviously, it hasn’t happened in the last couple weeks. I think we all share that optimism, that we have a really talented team that hasn’t played like one in the last few weeks, but that we will place bets on not only what this team is capable of, but what this team will do.”

Both the résumés of their players and their Pythagorean win-loss record (75-53) suggest this club should be much better. Yet those factors heighten the disappointment. Their talent tantalizes only to disappear.

During a series last weekend in Seattle, the Dodgers scored 27 runs. At home this week against St. Louis, they scored six. The team leads the National League in home runs yet ranks 21st in the majors in homers with runners on base. They rank second in the National League in on-base-plus-slugging percentage yet rate 23rd in baseball in production with runners on base.

“Our offensive performance in general, or with no one on, has been really good,” Friedman said. “And we’ve really struggled with runners in scoring position. Teams go through that from time to time. Looking forward, I’ll bet on our guys’ track records. But to figure out a why is obviously challenging.”

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Asked for a theory, Friedman suggested the stress of the slump was compounding on the players.

“As it’s happening more and more, I do think it starts to seep into guys’ conscious thought,” he said. “And I think the best way to get out of it is to have amnesia, and not think back to what has happened, but to look forward. But obviously human nature is such that when something is more magnified, it ramps up the pressure in those situations.

“Everyone wants to get that big hit — and in a lot of instances, it looks like [they want to] get the big hits for the nights before, also.”

When the season began, the projection system at FanGraphs afforded the Dodgers an 85.2% chance to win the division. There was little reason to bet against the club. They had owned the West for five years, their rivals in Arizona and Colorado had not made significant upgrades, and the Dodgers were expected to be motivated by their Game 7 defeat the previous fall.

Instead the team snoozed for seven weeks and stood at 10 games below .500 on May 16. A slugging surge rescued the club from the abyss and powered them to first place by the All-Star break. A victory on Aug. 9 kept the Dodgers tied with Arizona, but the diagnosis of Jansen’s irregular heartbeat caused turmoil in the bullpen.

Since Aug. 10, the Dodgers have gone 3-9. A reliever took the loss in eight of the defeats. Jansen is responsible for two of them, having served up tiebreaking homers in both appearances since returning from the disabled list. Jansen declined to use his health an explanation for the lack of movement on his signature cut fastball.

“That’s the results you’re going to get if it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do,” Jansen said. “All this does is motivate me. It’s frustrating.”

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