Their ceiling has never been higher. The floor has never been so hard.
Almost every conceivable advantage will be with the Dodgers on Wednesday when they host the Washington Nationals in Game 5 of their five-game National League Division Series.
So, too, will all the pressure.
For the Dodgers, this is more than a must-win game. It’s a should-win. It’s a better-win. It’s a how-can-they-not-win?
This is the best Dodgers team since their last World Series championship in 1988. This team is clearly better than the Nationals. You’ve seen it. They just are. They should have won this series by now. They should win it Wednesday night.
They have their best starting pitcher on the mound, one of the best pitchers in baseball history in the bullpen, the league’s best scoring team at the plate, and the four roaring decks of Dodger Stadium that give them the best home-field advantage in baseball.
Their group has won a Game 7 on the road against Milwaukee in last year’s NL Championship Series, a deciding Game 5 against basically these same Nationals at Washington in the 2016 NLDS, and a Game 163 against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium last season.
They’ve been there, done that, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t do it again. Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg will present problems, but he’ll eventually give the ball to some combustible reliever, and the Dodgers will take advantage. That’s how it feels. That’s how it should go.
”I do feel being at home with Walker on the mound gives us the best chance to win tomorrow, and I’m very confident that we’re going to come out of this and move on,” manager Dave Roberts said Tuesday.
But with all these blessings comes an enormous burden. It is a singular weight not shared by any other team in this postseason. Nobody else is shouldering this kind of load. Nobody else is feeling this sort of heat.
The Dodgers’ success will depend on their ability to keep their legs beneath them and their wits about them for a nine-inning referendum on their ability to manage baseball’s biggest millstone.
You dominate the league for six months and you’re out of the playoffs in less than a week? You advance to two consecutive World Series and yet this same team can’t get out of the first round? Are you kidding me?
Roberts must resist the urge to over-manage. This happened in Dodgers’ 6-1 loss in Game 4 when he lifted reliever Kenta Maeda for Julio Urias after pinch-hitting for Maeda in the fifth inning of a 1-1 tie.
Urias was pitching on consecutive days for only the second time in his career and Maeda had given up only one hit in three postseason appearances. Why not just let Maeda bat for himself and stay on the mound where he had been dominating? Urias bombed out, of course, and it cost them the game.
“As far as kind of the process, I loved it,” Roberts told reporters Monday night after the Game 4 loss, forever loyal to his players and that process, but that loyalty sometimes comes with a price.
Other temptations must be avoided if the Dodgers are to meet these highest of expectations. They are good enough to win this game. They don’t need to be better.
Buehler must resist the urge to be anything other than Buehler. He gave up one hit in six innings in Game 1 and gave up one hit in 6 2/3 innings in Game 163 last year. But in last year’s Game 7 in Milwaukee, he gave up six hits in 4 2/3 innings and struggled with trying to be too perfect.
Certainly there’s going to be emotion, he’s a power pitcher,” said Roberts of his prodigy. “With Walker we’ve seen, when he does get a little over-amped, he has a way of recalibrating. I think being at home will certainly help that, so just the experience and the success that he’s had in the handful of big games that he’s pitched for us.”
Typical Buehler, he’s like, hey, he’s got this.
“I think the thing that’s kind of lost in playoff baseball is that it’s really fun,” Buehler said. “And I think the pressure and things like that, if you spin it in your head the right way, it can make it more fun.”
Spin away, young fella. And convince your older teammates Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen to spin with you.
It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Dodgers win without Kershaw or Jansen being used out of the bullpen. Yet, both will have to overcome hurdles of the mind.
This feels like somebody added a 13th round to a fight that should have ended in regulation.
Although Kershaw has not given up a run in his last 5 2/3 postseason relief innings, including his dramatic two-out save against the Nationals in 2016, he is still dealing with those October ghosts that resurfaced in Game 2 of this series. Jansen hasn’t been tested in this postseason and, after the most difficult regular season of his career, who knows what it will look like when he is.
“All hands on deck, for sure,” Kershaw said. “I’ll be ready to go.”
An offense batting .228 this series with an astonishing 52 strikeouts in four games also needs to be ready. The sort of plate impatience they’ve shown in big moments is what cost them in previous postseasons. This appeared to be fixed during this regular season. With the notable exceptions of Max Muncy and Justin Turner, these tendencies apparently need fixing again.
Bellinger appears to have finally found his swing but still has only three hits in the series and needs to raise his game back to the level of those “M-V-P” chants. Corey Seager also has only three hits and A.J Pollock is looking for his first hit to offset his stunning 10 strikeouts in a dozen at-bats.
And, although it has been fun to watch the rookies play, the two rookie regulars haven’t shined. Gavin Lux has looked lost at the plate since his Game 1 home run and Will Smith has one hit in three starts, and maybe it’s time for some lineup juggling. Maybe put Enrique Hernandez in there somewhere?
“We were prepared to go all five . . . we’re still liking our chances,” Smith said. “It’s huge to go back home, play in Dodger Stadium, get momentum there, and hopefully win.”
Were they really prepared to go all five? It doesn’t feel like it. This feels like somebody added a 13th round to a fight that should have ended in regulation.
The good news for Dodgers fans is their team is still Goliath. The bad news is a loss Wednesday would represent a fall of biblical proportions.