Before the Dodgers popped another round of champagne bottles to celebrate another division title Tuesday night, manager Dave Roberts stopped the festivities and made a request. He insisted that they FaceTime Alex Verdugo and Max Muncy.
Verdugo and Muncy, two pillars in the Dodgers’ expeditious cruise to a seventh straight National League West crown, were not with the team for its division-clinching 7-3 win over the bumbling Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday. They watched on television from afar, injuries keeping them from the alcohol-soaked ritual seven months in the making.
“No man left behind,” Roberts shouted as they rushed to get the players’ faces on the line in the visitors’ clubhouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards..
Verdugo appeared on one screen and Muncy on another, giving clearance for the revelry.
“We won the first season,” Roberts screamed as he shook his bottle before getting lost in a champagne shower.
A year after needing to sweat out a 163rd game to clinch the NL West title, the Dodgers, featuring a seemingly endless stream of contributors, became the fastest team in franchise history to clinch a division, both by games played and date. The 1977 Dodgers had previously needed the fewest games (151) and the 2017 club accomplished the feat earliest (Sept. 19). This season’s iteration, still with an outside shot to compile the most wins in franchise history, accomplished the feat in 146 games and nine days earlier after losing the last two World Series.
“I just think after losing your first World Series, you probably got a little bit of a hangover coming into it,” pitcher Clayton Kershaw said. “After ’18, I think we came in a little bit more determined, maybe a little more focused.”
Like last year, when the Dodgers needed an extra day to break a tie with the Colorado Rockies for the NL West, Walker Buehler took the mound for the clinching game Tuesday.
The stakes were rather different. A loss Tuesday would not have forced the Dodgers to play in the wild-card game to stay alive. The intensity did not come close to matching the atmosphere at Dodger Stadium for Game 163 when Buehler tossed6 2/3 scoreless innings. On Tuesday, Dodgers fans made up about half of a light crowd. The announced attendance included 233 dogs. The bleachers were nearly empty.
Buehler, nonetheless, delivered another dominant performance on seven days’ rest. The right-hander tossed seven scoreless innings, giving up four hits while striking out 11 and walking none.
He exited, after throwing 91 pitches, with a seven-run lead and a bounceback outing from his five-inning, six-run debacle against the Rockies on Sept. 2. The rebound was indicative of Buehler’s fluctuation in the second half. In 10 starts since the All-Star break, has given up at least five runs in four games and one run over 42 innings in his six other appearances. It also ended an atypical slump for Dodgers starting pitchers: It was the first time a starter logged at least six innings since Buehler pitched six Aug. 27, a span of 11 games.
“It was really special,” Roberts said. “We needed it, and I think that he needed it.”
The Dodgers (94-52) rocked Orioles left-hander Ty Blach, once a menace as a member of the San Francisco Giants, from the outset. Corey Seager fueled a four-run first inning with three-run home run. He added a two-run homer in the third inning. Two batters later, Blach exited. He gave up six runs and nine hits in 21/3 innings.
In the third inning, Gavin Lux, a newcomer to the Dodgers’ divisional dominance, snapped an 0-for-13 skid with a single. In the fifth, the organization’s top prospect cracked a 99-mph fastball from left-hander Tanner Scott for his first career home run.
“If you would have told me two or three months ago that I’d be a part of a clinching team, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Lux said. “Just to be here and be a part of a special group of guys is special. Kind of indescribable.”
While the Dodgers were en route to another postseason berth with help from their latest hyped prospect, the Orioles (46-98) have been left with jockeying to avoid the worst record in the majors. They emerged Tuesday 21/2 games from the bottom, where the Detroit Tigers reside. After owning the first overall pick in this year’s draft, the Orioles have the inside track for the No. 2 selection next June.
The Dodgers have become a franchise for the Orioles to emulate. They have constructed a behemoth simultaneously churning out contending teams and restocking their farm system with elite talent. They will return to the playoffs for the seventh consecutive October as the favorite to represent the National League in the World Series for the third year in a row. Only two teams have ever won more than seven straight division titles.
But the experience of falling short the last two autumns, and the expectations those disappointments created, tinted Tuesday’s celebration. When Caleb Ferguson got Mark Trumbo to strike out looking to end the game, a dogpile did not form by the mound. People did not rush out from the dugout. The outfielders and relievers took their time reaching the rather muted celebration.
Everyone was given T-shirts. They took a team photo and Dodgers fans sang to them before heading into the clubhouse.
“It was more subdued, but it was kind of just organic,” said Roberts, who became the first manager in major league history to win a division title in his first four seasons. “And I think it’s one of those things that we expected it. It was obviously early in September, but it doesn’t take away what we as an organization accomplished.”
The celebration picked up in the clubhouse once Muncy and Verdugo were reached. Players drenched each other with alcohol and captured selfies. Jose Vizcaino, a member of the coaching staff, was dropped into a beer bucket and Kershaw shimmied to “SICKO MODE.”
Tommy Lasorda hovered by the entrance. Players, coaches, and executives stopped to speak with him as they stepped out from the chaos. Now 91, Lasorda was the manager of the Dodgers’ last championship team in 1988. The pursuit to end the 31-year drought continues with Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Oct. 3 at Dodger Stadium. Tuesday was a start worth celebrating.
“You come into spring training and you have that big goal to make it back to the World Series but you don’t just show up for the World Series,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “You got to take the steps to get there and this is the first step of being able to do that.”