The expectations weren’t much, just something shy of the greatest team ever. When you start the season with a record payroll, followers aren’t anticipating just pretty good.
Yet that’s what the Dodgers had been for much of the 2015 season. After a strong start, they lapsed into a prolonged period of mediocrity. A winning team that was still disappointing.
But the goal was always to get into the postseason, to flex their muscle when it counted most. And now, after almost six long months, that sometimes infuriating team has done just that.
Led by a masterful Clayton Kershaw one-hitter and three solo home runs off Giants ace Madison Bumgarner, the Dodgers finally clinched the National League West on Tuesday with an 8-0 victory at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.
The Dodgers have now won their division three consecutive years for the first time in franchise history.
The Dodgers all but limped into Tuesday’s game, having lost four consecutive games and eight of their last 10. The title seemingly inevitable, they looked like a team that had lost its edge.
But they played only sharp, clutch, joyous baseball on this night. They loaded the bases against World Series MVP Bumgarner with no outs in the first inning, modestly scoring their first run on a Justin Turner sacrifice fly.
But the way Kershaw (16-7) was throwing, one run seemed an insurmountable lead. He was 0-2 in three previous starts against Bumgarner this season, but this seemed his game, his moment, from the first pitch.
The three-time Cy Young winner allowed only a clean third-inning single to right by Kevin Frandsen and one walk, also in the third, and struck out 13. He has 294 strikeouts on the season, needing six more to become the first pitcher since 2002 to strike out 300 in one season.
The closer he got to finish, the strong he seemed. After that third-inning walk to Angel Pagan, he retired the final 19 consecutive Giants.
After getting pulled following just five innings in his last start and angrily letting Manager Don Mattingly know his displeasure over it, Kershaw was laser-focused against the rival Giants. He seemed intent on ending his team’s flagging pursuit of the division title, and it did not hurt the cause to pull it off against the defending World Series champions on their home field.
Enrique Hernandez, who had just come off the disabled list Monday, hit the Dodgers’ first solo home off Bumgarner – a mammoth shot measured at 430 feet – to lead off the third.
Then, after a memorable 13-pitch at-bat by Kershaw against Bumgarner in the fifth, the Giants ace was at 100 pitches by the inning’s end. It appeared to have taken a toll: In the sixth, Justin Ruggiano and A.J. Ellis each hit solo home runs, pushing the Dodgers’ lead to 4-0. (Ellis also hit a home run in the Dodgers’ division-clinching victory in Arizona two years ago.)
That ended the night for Bumgarner (18-9), but unlike in most games when the Dodgers build a modest lead, their offense did not rest. They broke the game open with four more runs in the eighth.
Corey Seager singled in one run, Andre Ethier doubled in two and Ellis singled in one more.
The Dodgers were suddenly up 8-0, and all that was left was the popping of champagne. It was the Dodgers’ first victory at AT&T in eight tries this season, but it was a memorable one.
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