As the Dodgers sprint toward the postseason, their president still can’t forget the guy who stopped running.
It was the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Stan Kasten’s Atlanta Braves were locked in a scoreless tie with the host Minnesota Twins when Lonnie Smith raced from first base on a deep line drive by Terry Pendleton.
The ball bounced off the left-center field wall and should have scored Smith. But as he rounded second base, he inexplicably stopped.
Smith said he lost the ball in the white of the Metrodome ceiling. Replays show he was fooled by Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who was pretending to catch a throw from the outfield.
Whatever happened, by the time Smith realized his mistake, he was able to make it only to third base, from which he was unable to score in a game — and series — that was eventually won by the Twins, 1-0, in the 10th inning.
It was the first bit of October heartbreak for a Braves team that finished the season with baseball’s best regular-season record five times, yet won just one championship.
It is also one of the nightmares that drives Kasten as he has overseen the building of a Dodgers team whose current run of greatness, he knows, is but one October twitch from ending.
“To get to the seventh game of the World Series and lose it on a baserunning mistake … I thought about that play every day until we finally won a championship,” said Kasten, whose Braves finally finished the job in 1995. “Once you get to the postseason, it’s a crucible where any mistake, any accident, can finish you.”
Into this crucible the Dodgers will soon plunge, and everyone is wondering, are they built for it? Are the Dodgers peaking too early, or will this incredible regular-season run — since June 21, they are 39 games over .500 — translate to the postseason?
The statistics are about as pretty as Lonnie Smith rounding second. Since the beginning of the wild-card era in 1995, the team with the best regular-season record has won the World Series just three of 18 times. During this period, of the 18 teams that have won at least 100 regular-season games, only two have won championships.
“When you get to the postseason, it’s not like one hot part of your team can carry you,” said Kasten. “It’s not just one Super Bowl, it’s an entire month that can be decided by one fluke.”
Kasten isn’t the only one who understands this. Ned Colletti, Dodgers general manager, was a key front-office member of the 2000 San Francisco Giants team that finished with baseball’s most wins and was out of the playoffs in a week.
Together, they have built a Dodgers team that, at first glance, appears deep and experienced enough to overcome the flukes. With Kasten’s unlimited budget and Colletti’s unlimited reach, they have seemingly built a regular-season monster that is playoff-proof.
“Once you get to postseason, nothing goes true to form,” said Colletti. “We have tried to add guys that give us a safety net.”
It starts with starting pitching. The Dodgers have what appears to be a perfect postseason rotation, but look closer. Clayton Kershaw has a 5.87 earned-run average in five postseason games. Zack Greinke has a 6.48 ERA in three postseason games. Hyun-Jin Ryu is in uncharted waters in his first major league season.
To hedge his bets here, Colletti acquired calm veteran Ricky Nolasco, who has the powerful safety-net number of a 2.27 ERA in 11 Dodgers starts.
“The postseason is truly a crapshoot, you have to be as prepared as possible because you just don’t know, and building the starting pitching to be as good as you can is one way of doing that,” said Colletti.
In the bullpen, Kenley Jansen and Paco Rodriguez are youngsters who have never appeared in a postseason game while Ronald Belisario has a 7.71 ERA in six postseason games. Colletti added J.P. Howell, who has a 3.00 ERA in 13 postseason games, and Brian Wilson, who did not allow an earned run in 10 appearances for the Giants in the 2010 postseason.
“I want guys like Brian because they’ve played this time of year, they’ve played into October with success,” said Colletti. “They understand the dynamic, they understand what the day feels like.”
While the Dodgers’ everyday lineup has only two guys with World Series experience — Carl Crawford and Juan Uribe — the bench is filled with October bling. Skip Schumaker has two World Series rings, Nick Punto and Jerry Hairston Jr. have one each, and newly acquired Michael Young has played in two of the last three World Series.
“The experience is a benefit, because when you get to the postseason, everything is turned up,” said Colletti. “Everything is dissected deeper and deeper, and you have to look for a competitive advantage pitch by pitch.”
It appears the Dodgers have that advantage, but Colletti knows you can never know. In 2000, the league-best Giants lost in four games to the New York Mets in a series that turned on a Mets walk-off hit in Game 3.
Now and forever, one of Colletti’s most unforgettable home runs as a Giants executive didn’t come from a guy named Barry Bonds, but a guy named Benny Agbayani.