October is back!
Oh no, October is back.
How great that the Dodgers are in the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season!
How cruel that they might put us through another month of hell.
This could be the team that breaks a franchise record 31-year drought and wins a World Series championship!
This could be the team that finally breaks us in two.
It is with truly mixed emotions that Los Angeles again begins its annual journey into madness, embarking on a dizzying path through Chavez Ravine carved by a relentless belief in something that has thus far been rendered nonexistent.
Once again, Let’s Go Dodgers!
For once, can they not mess this up?
When the Dodgers begin the postseason with the National League Division Series opener against the Washington Nationals on Thursday at Dodger Stadium, they will be a team straddling the line between two legacies.
A World Series victory could set them on a course to be one of the greatest dynasties in the city’s sports history. Another postseason failure, particularly a third consecutive World Series flop, could alter that direction toward the lamentable land of the Buffalo Bills.
It is impossible to watch this team without feeling both incredible anticipation and tremendous dread. The perception is particularly keen this October, when the ceiling has never been higher yet the fear of falling has never been greater.
They didn’t need to post a franchise record 106 wins to show that this was one of the best regular-season teams in Dodger history. It is the greatest Dodger team I’ve seen in my 31 years of following them. It is the strongest squad Dave Roberts has managed in his four years of doing this.
“I think, top to bottom, it’s the best team we’ve had,” said Roberts this week.
But they are battling their history. They are sparring with their ghosts. They are shouldering the weight of six Octobers whose brilliant successes –- they’ve been to two World Series and four National League Championship Series –- have been marred by inexplicable collapses, stunning stumbles, and Yu Darvish.
“As far as the World Series and not finishing, I think that’s at the forefront of all of our minds, as far as kind of the carrot out there, the focus,” said Roberts.
It is on the forefront of everyone’s mind as Dodgers fans will cheer this team with equal parts fun and foreboding. The games will be a mixture of must-watch and can’t-watch. The trademark Dodger Stadium roar will occur only after the silence of a 50,000 stilled breaths.
You will hope for the best because you’ve seen darn near close to the best.
You’ve thrilled in Justin Turner’s walk-off against the Chicago Cubs, Max Muncy’s blast against the Boston Red Sox, and the winner-take-all wins in Washington and Milwaukee. You’ve felt the champagne in the cramped Wrigley Field clubhouse, the strain of the lunging catch by Chris Taylor at Miller Park, and the clinching tears of Clayton Kershaw.
You will, however, fear the worst because you’ve lived through the worst.
You’ve screamed at Kershaw’s middle innings, Kenley Jansen’s late innings, and Roberts’ decision to pull Rich Hill. You sat through one World Series Game 7 that was over in seven minutes, and another World Series deciding game that was clinched in three batters.
The Dodgers usually make you smile, you fill Chavez Ravine in record numbers and give them the best home-field advantage in baseball. But this time of the year, they are just as likely to make you lose your mind, and they know it.
“There’s nothing worse than losing in the postseason, not being the last team, especially when you’ve got the best fans in all of sports,” said Roberts, acknowledging, “We feel that responsibility to do right by them, to play 27 outs, to bring a championship home to them. Our goal is to win a championship, anything less would be a huge disappointment for all of us.”
So what is it going to be this time? Championship for once, or disappointment again?
Roberts feels they are ready to win the title, saying, “We are equipped to accomplish that goal,” and I agree. But, as always with this team this time of year, there are enough nagging negatives to stop short of a guarantee.
Yes, this is an experienced group that has been through so much –- winning a Game 7 on the road, winning an 18-inning World Series game, closing out the Nationals in D.C., beating the Cubs out of their title in Wrigley –- that nothing will rattle them.
“In the best possible way, it’s a been-there, done-that,” said Roberts. “This is nothing new to us.”
On the other hand, how quickly can they turn on the switch after not playing a meaningful game in months? They led the National League West by nine games June 1 and cruised from there. Oh, wait, they did play three sort-of-pressure games against the New York Yankees in August. And yeah, they lost two and should have lost all three.
When it comes to the lineup, it starts with the starting pitching, the best in baseball with a 3.11 ERA that is a half-run better than even the staff of the great Houston Astros. They are deep and powerful and experienced in big games.
On the other hand, that experience has not always been great. Kershaw’s postseason ERA is 4.32 and Hyun-Jin Ryu was 0-2 and shelled in his three biggest games last October. Then there is NLDS Game 4 starter Hill, who hasn’t pitched more than three innings since June.
The Dodgers also dominated the regular season at the plate, leading the league in runs, home runs, and OPS. This is a lineup filled with more patient hitters than ever, more big hitters than ever, so many different bats, so many ways to beat you.
“This is our most versatile roster,” said Roberts.
Yet injured catalyst Turner played only five full games in September, MVP-lock Cody Bellinger has slowed considerably in the second half and has a .172 career postseason average, and who knows how the playoff atmosphere will affect struggling rookie Will Smith and fellow rookie Gavin Lux?
Finally, the bullpen will be the center of attention because it has led to most major Dodger meltdowns in previous postseasons. This bullpen is deeper than past ones. The additions of starters Kenta Maeda, Tony Gonsolin and Dustin May will help, as will the emergence of Julio Urias. This group has many ways to finish games.
On the other hand, of the two men most qualified to get the last out, Joe Kelly has been struggling with overall body pain and Jansen has been fighting himself.
Roberts said this week he will continue to give the final inning to Jansen, who finished with a career worst ERA of 3.71, more than double his ERA of two seasons ago.
“I know Kenley is our closer,” he said. ”We’ll bet on the results. I want him to have the ball at the end of the game.”
Here’s betting that changes if Jansen struggles. These Dodgers aren’t going to stand on ceremony. These Dodgers aren’t going to play it safe. This is their best chance yet, and they are of the mind-set of stopping at nothing –- and that includes the mighty Astros –- to make it happen.
The playoffs are back, the Dodgers are back and better than ever, this should be the most special of Octobers, and we can’t wait to watch!