Dave Roberts raised his arms to applaud the clinic unfolding before him. His claps were rhythmic and deliberate. He was saluting the best team in baseball.
The Dodgers arrived here around 4:30 a.m. on Monday, but they awoke by the fourth inning for a six-run, systematic humiliation of the Philadelphia Phillies in an eventual 16-2 victory. The display included six hits, a sacrifice squeeze by Austin Barnes and a sublime double steal executed by Barnes and Joc Pederson.
The gap between the Dodgers and the Phillies looked obvious after that inning. It is a chasm. The gap between the Dodgers and the rest of the National League looks almost as large.
The team disembarked for a four-game series at Citizens Bank Park with the most envious position in the sport. They have collected more victories than any other team in baseball, and own the largest division lead.
Heading into Monday’s games, the Dodgers led the National League West by 14 1/2 games. They could forfeit a week’s worth of games and still cruise to a seventh consecutive title. So what do they still have to play for?
A whole lot, it turns out. At least, in the eyes of their manager.
“I’d rather be 14 up than 14 down,” Roberts said before the game. “We still have a lot of work to do. And if you look at that series, there are things we need to get better at, things that we need to clean up.”
A few loose ends from Boston still perturbed Roberts. He cited “defensive lapses, times that we don’t finish at-bats the way we should” and issues with how the bullpen operated. Roberts worried about both the execution and the decision-making of his relievers, “how we attack hitters and [get] synced up,” he said.
“We’ve got to get better,” Roberts said. “And I really don’t care about the win-loss. I care about how we’re playing.”
The result on Monday left Roberts satisfied. The Dodgers humiliated the Phillies. Cody Bellinger swatted two home runs. The offense added a five-run splurge in the eighth. The crowd at Citizens Bank Park took to applauding Phillies relievers for the basic act of throwing strikes. The Dodgers scored with power and speed and guile.
“We’ve got a lot of baseball players on this team, up and down the lineup,” Barnes said. “You ask them to do something, and they’ll do it.”
As the second half unfolds, the Dodgers face only internal challenges before the postseason begins. The front office has two weeks to repair the bullpen through trades; the on-field personnel has a couple of months to place the pitchers in their proper roles. The bullpen remains the obvious blemish on an otherwise enviable roster.
The fragility of the bullpen looked obvious over the weekend in Boston, where the Dodgers still managed to win two of three from the defending championship Red Sox. After Pedro Baez served up a pair of eighth-inning home runs, Roberts faced a decision about who would start the ninth inning of a tied game.
His two choices?
One was Kenley Jansen, the three-time All-Star closer.
The other was Zac Rosscup, a 31-year-old journeyman who had already been cut loose by the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays this season.
In a different setting — like the postseason, or the 163-game hothouse that was the 2018 regular season — it is difficult to imagine Roberts opting for Rosscup in this scenario. But he sent Rosscup to the mound on Sunday, in part to save Jansen for a potential save situation in extra innings.
Rosscup did not last long. He walked the only batter he faced, and was replaced by Yimi Garcia. Jansen eventually arrived with two runners aboard. He stranded both, then threw a scoreless inning in the 10th. The Dodgers eventually won in 12.
Rosscup was designated for assignment on Monday. Brought in to replace him was reliever Casey Sadler. He handled the ninth inning, with the Dodgers nursing a comfortable 14-run advantage.
The lead had ballooned as the Philadelphia bullpen collapsed. In the ninth, the Dodgers faced outfielder Roman Quinn on the mound. One moment typified the sort of effort Roberts expects from his group: Bellinger legged out an infield single to keep a two-run rally going.
“We’ve done that all year, whether we’re up or down,” Bellinger said. “None of our guys give away at-bats. It just shows the kind of group that we have. Everyone just wants to play and play well, and perform. That’s what we’re doing.”
There was little to clean up Monday. The Dodgers romped. The manager expected no less.
“I think our guys now are so wired that we’re just very methodical,” Roberts said. “And I don’t think that we care if we were tied in the division or if we’re 14 games up. It’s about how he play today.”