Forget about making a statement. Never mind the comparisons to the defending World Series champions.
The Dodgers had to win Sunday not to prove anything to the visiting Houston Astros, but to catch the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Remember the Diamondbacks?
You know, the insecure little team in the desert that guards its stadium pool to prevent the Dodgers from celebrating their inevitable triumphs with a swim. The franchise with the whiny owner who blows a gasket when paying customers in the suite behind home plate wear the merchandise of another team.
They’re suddenly relevant again, not because they’re great, but because the Dodgers aren’t.
By preventing a three-game sweep with a 3-2 victory over the Astros at Dodger Stadium, the Dodgers moved into a tie for first place in the National League West with the Diamondbacks, who dropped a game with an identical score to the San Francisco Giants.
The Dodgers and Diamondbacks are both 62-51, only two games ahead of the Colorado Rockies.
So before looking ahead to the World Series and dreaming of a rematch with the Astros, be mindful of this: The Dodgers are in danger of missing the postseason altogether.
“Nothing is promised this year,” closer Kenley Jansen acknowledged.
At least the players are aware.
Because it doesn’t seem like anyone else in this city is. After five consecutive division championships, October feels like a civic birthright.
When the Dodgers moved into first place for the first time on July 12, the expectation was for them have a comfortable lead over the Diamondbacks and Rockies by now.
Only the anticipated midseason surge by the Dodgers hasn’t materialized and here they are, still clustered with a group of so-so teams. And if the season ended Sunday, neither the Dodgers nor the Diamondbacks would be in position for a wild card spot. The Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves would play in the wild card game.
“I think that it’s a lot [harder] than saying you get to first place and you’re just going to leave everyone behind you,” manager Dave Roberts said.
The reality is that the Dodgers aren’t as good as they were last season. As much as Andrew Friedman’s front office was credited with building a team that reached the World Series, it’s undeniable that the group’s efforts were aided by a league-high payroll.
The Dodgers are now operating with a budget, the $197-million luxury-tax threshold.
They have something of a feast-or-famine lineup. Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig were sidelined with injuries Sunday, but the Dodgers nonetheless started eight position players who averaged almost 19 home runs between them. Remove Manny Machado from the group, however, and the highest batting average entering the game was Joc Pederson’s .261.
If the Dodgers were criticized in previous seasons for constructing teams that were better suited for the regular season than the playoffs, the opposite is now the case.
The bullpen can be a strength in October, as Kenta Maeda, Walker Buehler, Alex Wood and Ross Stripling could be moved into relief roles. But if they’re available between now and then, they will be needed to start. In the meantime, Roberts will have to continue to build a bridge to Jansen out of the likes of Scott Alexander, Dylan Floro and Pedro Baez.
Jansen was encouraged by the last few weeks.
Monday will mark the team’s first day off since the All-Star break. The team played in each of the previous 17 days, with each game played against a team in playoff position. The Dodgers went 9-8.
“I’ll take it,” Jansen said.
Roberts liked the mindset of his players.
“Outside of our clubhouse, there’s an assumption that it’s booked that we’re going to win this division and we’re going to be there in October and the World Series,” Roberts said. “But there’s a lot of things that have to happen from now to then. For me, I have solace in knowing everyone in that clubhouse doesn’t take it for granted.”
The schedule will cooperate. The Dodgers will visit the Oakland Athletics and Rockies this week, after which they will start taking on some patsies.
The Dodgers should win their division.
Fortunately for the Dodgers, the top three teams in baseball are all in the American League – the Astros, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. The NL is underwhelming to where it’s not difficult to envision the Dodgers taking down the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs in the postseason to return to the World Series.
And once there, who knows? The Astros were clearly the best team in major leagues last year, but the Dodgers pushed them to a seventh game in the World Series. In a seven-game series, anything can happen.