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Dodgers are avoiding World Series hangover despite setbacks and slumps

Dodgers are avoiding World Series hangover despite setbacks and slumps
Manager Dave Roberts congratulates Austin Barnes and Kenley Jansen after the Dodgers defeated the San Diego Padres on Friday. (Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

The star shortstop is trending toward the Mendoza line. The pillar at third base has homered once. The presumptive ace has an earned-run average above 5.00 and the actual ace has already spent two weeks on the injured list. The most expensive free-agent acquisition is marooned with his latest elbow injury and the second-priciest new guy pitches like a powder keg.

All these things are true for the Dodgers. But after five weeks of baseball, so is this: the team resides atop the National League West, well positioned to capture their seventh consecutive division title and resolute in pursuit of the title that has eluded the franchise since 1988. Unlike 2018, when the Dodgers spent the entirety of the regular season trying not to drown, the latest edition has discovered how to gain ground while treading water.

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“Things are going great,” second baseman Enrique Hernandez said with a wry grin. “We’re in first place.”

The Dodgers hold this position despite the rustiness of Corey Seager and the power outage from Justin Turner, despite the ineffectiveness of Walker Buehler and the early absence of Clayton Kershaw, despite the injury to A.J. Pollock and the volatility of Joe Kelly.

A significant portion of the credit belongs to Cody Bellinger, who hit 14 home runs with a 1.397 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in April. But the rest of the group has been useful. The combination of setbacks and slumps could have led to another World Series hangover. Instead, it allows the team to brim with confidence. Hernandez pointed out how lethal the offense might look if Seager, Turner and Pollock caught fire.

“When those guys get going,” Hernandez said, “it’s going to be an even more dangerous lineup than it already is.”

It is easy to dream from first place. The Dodgers were not afforded this luxury in 2018. The group reached the World Series, but needed 163 games to win the division. The season was rife with acrimony as players kvetched about losing at-bats to platoons or shifting from the rotation to the bullpen.

A more placid atmosphere has taken hold in 2019. The winning helps. Last year, the team won its 20th game May 20. This team reached that milestone April 30. The 2018 Dodgers fell 10 games below .500 in May. This team has not spent a day with a losing record.

Even after the nadir of April, a six-game losing streak against the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers, the Dodgers corrected their course with a subsequent six-game winning streak. Manager Dave Roberts credited the players for refusing to rattle during the skid. The stability of the roster aided their cause, Roberts said.

“We’ve just got to the point where we know that there’s going to be highs and lows,” Roberts said. “As long as how we approach things and how we go about it are consistent, and the guys are there, I don’t think we fret too much over a week of losing baseball.”

The path to another title in the West still features a couple obstacles. The first is the San Diego Padres, who carried a winning record into this weekend’s clash with the Dodgers and brim with optimism after adding $300-million infielder Manny Machado to their youthful core. And the second is the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have avoided cratering despite tearing down portions of their roster in the offseason.

After not reaching the playoffs in 2018, Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen traded first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to the Cardinals, then let Pollock and pitcher Patrick Corbin depart in free agency. The decision to part ways with Pollock looks prudent — the last time Pollock was an All-Star, Jeb Bush was considered the presumptive favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination — but losing Goldschmidt sapped the lineup of its primary run producer.

With Goldschmidt in the fold, the Cardinals loom as the most likely challenger to the Dodgers’ supremacy in the NL. That clash won’t occur until October. Until then, the Dodgers need to fend off the Diamondbacks, who have ridden an offense powered by veterans such as third baseman Eduardo Escobar, shortstop Ketel Marte and outfielder Adam Jones.

“It’s similar to last year, there’s teams in our division off to a good start,” said pitcher Ross Stripling, pointing to Arizona and San Diego. “If we would have had the hangover again, we’d find ourselves with multiple games back, in an uphill battle. We don’t want to have to play Game 163 again this year.”

To avoid that fate, the Dodgers would benefit by a revival from Seager and Turner, who were expected to be their two most reliable hitters. Turner continues to provide dogged at-bats, and entered Saturday ranked second on the team with a .379 on-base percentage. But he had only four extra-base hits.

After homering on opening day, Seager has looked rusty at the plate. He sat out most of 2017 after elbow surgery and a cleanup procedure on his hip. Before Friday’s game, Roberts chose to drop Seager from the No. 2 spot in the batting order and replace him with Bellinger.

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Seager went hitless that Friday night at Petco Park and began Saturday with only one hit in his previous 26 at-bats. Yet, his teammates still won the series opener.

The victory was emblematic of the talent stocked on the roster and the resiliency stored within those players. The Dodgers did not play particularly well: Kershaw gave up two home runs in the first three innings, the lineup did not produce a hit until the fifth inning and the the Dodgers left seven runners on base.

They still rallied to win over an upstart Padres club. Chris Taylor homered. So did Austin Barnes. Barnes opened the ninth with a double against closer Kirby Yates. Max Muncy singled over the glove of first baseman Eric Hosmer to drive in Barnes with the go-ahead run. The bullpen did not give up a run.

In the sixth inning, the Dodgers loaded the bases with none out. Seager hit a sacrifice fly but the offense netted nothing more. Trailing by a run, the Dodgers could have lamented the missed opportunity and folded. Instead, they scored in the seventh and the ninth innings to steal the game. The offense, Barnes said, is “relentless.”

“I love our fight,” Kershaw said. “I love our compete. It sounds cliche, but you can really see it: Our team doesn’t really give in. Doesn’t give away at-bats. Pitchers don’t give in, good or bad. That’s the sign of a good team. That’s the sign of an experienced team that knows it can come back from stuff.”

Only five weeks into the season, the Dodgers have already experienced a variety of calamities. They have not reacted with shock. They have rolled their collective shoulders. The marathon of the summer will determine whether they have enough talent and willpower to end the championship drought.

But the start of the season has shown the team should be there when the playoffs begin.

“From top to bottom,” Hernandez said, “this roster is pretty solid.”

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