Dodgers must win World Series title for 2020 to be a success despite schedule quirks
The Los Angeles Dodgers are in the MLB playoffs again. Is this the year the win it all? And if they do win, does it count? Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jorge Castillo and columnists Dylan Hernandez and Bill Plaschke discuss those things and more.
The Dodgers lost one of the 20 series on their 60-game regular-season schedule. If they lose one in October, that rampage they completed Sunday — most runs scored, second-fewest runs allowed, highest winning percentage by any team since 1954, an eighth consecutive National League West title — will become a footnote in another failed attempt to win the World Series.
Those are the stakes. This expanded 16-team postseason format didn’t appropriately reward the Dodgers’ dominance in a season played without fans and with a possible COVID-19 outbreak looming every day while players and coaches addressed social issues beyond baseball. Too many teams qualified. The three-game wild-card series added a layer of unprecedented variance. The randomness of the playoffs was amplified. But it’s the same for every club and it doesn’t change this fact: The Dodgers are the overwhelming favorites to win their first championship since 1988. Anything short of reaching that peak would be a massive disappointment.
“It’s kind of World Series-or-bust every year,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “This year, I think, certainly would be more special, if it could even be possible. But we’ve all gone through a lot. The whole industry has.”
The Dodgers are built to win now and for years to come. They boast a strong farm system and some of the best young talent in the majors and have Mookie Betts under contract for another 12 years.
This might be the last Dodgers season for Justin Turner, whose unlikely rise from fringe player to Dodgers icon made him a fan favorite. He wants a championship.
But mainstays on the roster won’t be around to keep taking shots at a championship for long. Justin Turner, Joc Pederson, Pedro Báez and Kiké Hernández are among the free agents this winter. Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and Corey Seager are scheduled to hit free agency after next season. Time is winding down for this particular group.
Their first opponent is a mediocre team they didn’t encounter in the regular season. The Milwaukee Brewers have no business playing in October. Along with this year’s Houston Astros, they have the worst winning percentage of any team to ever qualify for the playoffs. They finished two games under .500 and didn’t spend a day above the mark. Their offense produced the fourth-fewest runs per game in the majors. They lost Corbin Burnes, their best starting pitcher, to injury last week for at least the wild-card round.
But a three-game series increases the chances of an upset and the Brewers have the bullpen to shorten games.
“We really have nothing to lose, and I think that makes us pretty dangerous,” Brewers infielder Jedd Gyorko said. “We expect to win, but a lot of people don’t think that. Hopefully we’ll play well, and if we play the game we know how to, I think we’ll be fine.”
Brewers left-handed closer Josh Hader, a two-time All-Star, and right-hander Devin Williams, a 26-year-old rookie, might be the best one-two relief punch in the majors.
Four of the eight runs Hader gave up this season came in one of his 21 outings. Another two came in one-third of an inning. He’s been dominant otherwise. Williams might have been the best reliever in baseball for the two-month season. He features a mind-bending hybrid pitch between a changeup and screwball that has been coined “The Airbender.” He yielded one earned run in 27 innings. The Dodgers have never faced him.
“A lot of those guys over there, we haven’t got a chance to see, but we probably have some guys on our club that they haven’t seen either,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “That’s the world we’re living in in 2020, and you can’t use it as an excuse. You have to be as prepared as possible and go out there and find a way to get the job done.”
To avoid Milwaukee’s bullpen shutting the door, the Dodgers will need to take early leads. One half of that equation will fall on Walker Buehler’s right arm in Game 1.
The 26-year-old Buehler logged just 36 2/3 innings during the regular season because he reported to summer camp behind the other starters and a blister surfaced on his right index finger in mid-August. The problem forced him to go on the injured list twice. He returned from the second stint last week to throw four scoreless innings against the Oakland Athletics. It was his third start in a month.
Roberts said Buehler has since thrown a bullpen session with the blister covered. Buehler said the blister is “fine.” If it remains that way Wednesday, the matchup offers an opportunity to add to the impressive big-game resume he cultivated in his first two full major league seasons.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts is criticized on social media for his decisions, but he deals with the vitriol with a smile and an abundance of optimism.
“It’s not like I’ve done this for 10 years,” Buehler said. “But I feel pretty comfortable with what I’ve done in the playoffs previously and just want to keep that going”.
The Brewers will counter with left-hander Brent Suter to start Game 1. Right-hander Brandon Woodruff will get the ball in Game 2. But if their strategy against the Dodgers from the 2018 National League Championship Series is any indication, they won’t be afraid to unconventionally deploy pitchers to maximize their chances of limiting damage and mask their thin starting rotation. Suter made four starts and 12 relief appearances during the season.
The Dodgers, however, are better prepared to counter openers and bullpen games than they were two years ago. This year’s team will rely less on platoons. It has a more stable lineup. The Dodgers’ first six hitters — a combination of Betts, Seager, Turner, Max Muncy, Will Smith and Cody Bellinger — are expected to start every game. The right-left-right-left-right-left sequence will make it difficult on the Brewers to optimize matchups based on handedness.
But that’s on paper. On paper, the teams shouldn’t even bother playing this series. The Dodgers are the far superior club. They should win this series and the next one and the one after that and the last one. They shouldn’t lose another series. They are expected to lift the World Series trophy in Arlington, Texas, in late October. Any other result, fairly or not, would be considered a failure.
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