The Great Los Angeles Freakout of 2017 is underway.
When your team has not won the World Series in three decades, and when the greatest hope since then threatens to dissolve into the greatest collapse in baseball history, you absolutely are entitled to freak out.
On the morning of Aug. 28, Sports Illustrated put the Dodgers on its cover, with this title: “BEST. TEAM. EVER?” The Dodgers led the NL West by 21 games.
On the morning of Sept. 8, the Dodgers had coughed up more than half of that lead, and despairing yet enterprising fans took to the Internet to search for “biggest collapse ever.”
There were plenty of dramatic September collapses, colossal but quick. The 2007 New York Mets led by seven games Sept. 12, the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies by 6 1/2 games Sept. 20, the 1962 Dodgers by four games Sept. 22, the 1987 Toronto Blue Jays by 3 1/2 games Sept. 27.
But 21 games? Never, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
In 1951, the Brooklyn Dodgers led by 13 1/2 games in August, then lost a playoff to the New York Giants on Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world.”
In 1978, the Boston Red Sox led by 10 games in July, then lost a playoff to the New York Yankees on Bucky Dent’s home run. In 1993, the San Francisco Giants led by 10 games in July, but Mike Piazza and the Dodgers eliminated them on the final day of the season.
The Angels coughed up all 11 games of their lead in six weeks. The Dodgers coughed up 11 games of their lead in two weeks.
“Oh my gosh,” Tim Salmon said Friday. “Is it really that much?”
Salmon, the right fielder on that 1995 Angels team, had just returned to his Phoenix home from a week in the mountains. The city was abuzz over the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 13-game winning streak, which included consecutive sweeps of the Dodgers, the second one without MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt.
But Salmon had one question about the Dodgers.
“What’s their lead right now?” he said.
Ten games, in September. The 1951 Dodgers never led by double digits in September. Neither did the 1978 Red Sox, the 1993 Giants, or the 1995 Angels.
That does not mean that the only T-shirt a Dodgers fan is entitled to wear right now is one that reads “keep calm and carry on.”
Panic City is accepting applications for citizenship. At the end of July, columnists wrote that the Dodgers did not need Yu Darvish to win the division, that they traded for him just for the playoffs. Then again, at the end of July 1995, columnists wrote that the Angels did not need Jim Abbott to win the division, that they traded for him just for the playoffs.
The Dodgers had lost eight consecutive games entering play Saturday, and 13 of 14. The 1995 Angels lost 12 of 13, won five of eight, then lost nine in a row to fall out of first place.
“Once we started that little slide, we were continually looking in that rear-view mirror at Seattle,” Salmon said. “They were doing a historic run in the other direction. They were winning all the time.
“We’d finally win a game, and you couldn’t even go home excited. We’d sit around the clubhouse waiting to see Seattle losing going into the ninth, come back in the ninth, and win. It just was a crushing blow. Even when we won, we felt like we lost.”
If there is any great loss of confidence among the Dodgers players or their manager, Dave Roberts, it hasn’t gone public.
“Yeah, I saw Roberts made some bold prediction,” Salmon said.
After the Diamondbacks finished off their latest sweep Wednesday, Roberts said: “We’re going to win the division. I can assure you of that.”
Said Salmon: “With a 10-game lead, he’s pretty safe saying that — at least, I would think.”
For the longtime Dodgers fans who would love to see Roberts go full Tommy Lasorda on his team — yell, scream, get in the faces of his players, maybe overturn a buffet table — well, Lasorda retired 20 years ago.
That behavior does not play well these days, when the manager is more of a middle manager, with less job security than the front office and less money than the players.
Roberts has said he has not detected players slacking off in effort or preparation, so there is no need to rage over results.
“Just to show anger you’re losing?” Salmon said. “Yeah, it’s frustrating. But players see through it if it’s eye-wash.
“If complacency is being seen, or apathy, or they’re wasting their at-bats, or they’re cruising, those are scenarios that prompt that kind of stuff. If they’re not seeing that, anything just to get angry can be seen through, and maybe backfire on you.”
Salmon’s advice to the Dodgers: “It’s very rare that you can play six straight months of perfect baseball. You’re having a slide right now, but two weeks turns pretty quickly. That’s the assurance I’d be giving my teammates right now. I wouldn’t worry or panic or look in the rear-view mirror.”
“If their lead were down to three games, it might be a different story,” he said. “Then you’d for sure be looking in the rear-view mirror. I’d just keep grinding away.
“This might be the adversity they need to restart, or turn that switch on, going into the postseason. We’ve all seen teams coast into postseason, and sometimes they lose that edge a little bit. This might be perfect timing.
“At least they’re human.”
For a team gliding toward October, the Dodgers have an unusually high number of postseason questions: Who is in the bullpen before Kenley Jansen? How does the starting rotation line up behind Clayton Kershaw? Who’s in left field? Does first-half Justin Turner or second-half Justin Turner show up in the playoffs? Have pitchers and advance scouts figured out Cody Bellinger?
It isn’t classified as a collapse if you make the playoffs.
No one remembers that the 1995 Angels made up a three-game deficit with five to play. They forced a tiebreaker, but they lost. They did not get into the playoffs.
The Dodgers can lose every game the rest of the season and reach the playoffs, if only as a wild-card team. And history tells us how a team finishes in the regular season does not foretell how it performs in the postseason.
But, in a year the World Series and the record for victories in a season appeared to be there for the Dodgers’ taking, the Dodgers are making us reconsider the definition of collapse.
When we’re not freaking out, that is.
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin