Column: Dodgers’ latest meltdown is a microcosm of everything that’s gone wrong this season
Dave Roberts tore off his cap, sprinted across the diamond and screamed.
Kenley Jansen dropped his head, slinked off the mound and was blanketed in boos.
Thousands of fans threw up their hands, shook their heads and howled into the blackness of an unbelievable baseball carnage.
If you needed evidence that these Dodgers are not last year’s World Series champions, witness the ninth inning Thursday night at an angrily raucous Dodger Stadium.
The Dodgers were leading the upstart San Francisco Giants by two runs. They had fought their way to that point behind brilliant Walker Buehler, smooth Justin Turner, tough Will Smith and a powerful glimpse of their title culture.
The Dodgers would have taken about 17 pitchers in a normal 40-round draft, and hitters were difficult to evaluate because of last year’s abbreviated season.
A season ago, the Dodgers would’ve won this game.
But on this night, in this year, in every conceivable way, the Dodgers blew it.
They blew it with pitching. They blew it with fielding. They blew it with managing. They left it in the hands of an umpire who blew it with the worst call of this Dodgers season.
By the time the Giants had finished off a second consecutive ninth-inning comeback with a 5-3 victory, the crowd was staggered, the home team was ashen and the truth was plain.
What would you do with the slumping Dodgers center fielder?
This season is different. This Dodgers team is different. It’s struggling to find the magic. It’s stumbling to find the greatness. It’s lost within itself.
“These stink to lose,” said Buehler, but none of their 39 defeats has reeked like this one.
They were one strike from splitting this four-game series and heading into the final two months of the season with just a one-game deficit to the first-place Giants.
Instead, with no more home games left against the Giants, they lost three out of four here and now trail the surprising rivals by three games, including four in the loss column.
“It’s not the first time we’ve taken gut punches, and I’m sure it won’t be the last,” Roberts said afterward.
But this was a breathtaking blow, a huge standings swing, as sweeping as the two-out, bases-loaded hack taken by Darin Ruf that should have been strike three and ended this game.
Wait. We’re getting ahead of ourselves. There were two other big Dodgers mistakes before that, and one big Dodgers mistake after that, and don’t dare blame this game only on that one bad call.
“There’s a lot of people that are really pissed off, and I’m leading the way,” said Roberts of his team. “We should have won that game. It’s a game we wanted, we had, and we didn’t.”
But, honestly, they should mostly be mad at themselves. They should be better than this. Last season they were better than this.
The meltdown began occurring shortly after Jansen was brought back to the mound less than 24 hours after ruining Wednesday’s game. Hey, he’s the Dodgers’ closer, he was great in the first half of the season, the crowd actually cheered his entrance with the greatest of hopes, and what other choice do the Dodgers have? Right now, none.
So Jansen allowed Giants batters to reach second and third with two out, but he got two strikes on .207-hitting rookie Jason Vosler, and the game was about to end and … Jansen threw three straight balls to walk him.
“The 1-2 to 4-2 walk to Vosler can’t happen,” said Roberts.
What happened next also can’t happen. Thairo Estrada hit an apparent game-ending grounder to shortstop Chris Taylor, who threw to second baseman Sheldon Neuse. But Neuse didn’t stretch far enough for the ball, and the replay showed that Vosler beat the throw to drive in a run and make it 3-2.
“Sheldon is a heck of a ballplayer but in that situation, if we stretch, we get the guy,” said Roberts.
Now it was time for first-base umpire Ed Hickox to stumble, on Jansen’s full-count pitch that caused Ruf to swing and miss. It was clearly a game-ending strikeout. But when blocked home-plate umpire Jansen Visconti appealed to Hickox, he offered the second opinion that Ruf didn’t swing, allowing Ruf to walk to first and force in the tying run.
All of which caused Roberts to jump out of the dugout and sprint down to first base screaming.
Afterward, even though he was ejected and had time to calm down, he was still furious.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he went, and the game should have been over,” said Roberts. “Eddie is a really good umpire, been around for a long time, but in that spot, two contending teams, you just can’t miss that call. The game should have been over. There’s no other way to look at it.”
Just wondering: Why aren’t check swings reviewable? Anyway, it was now Roberts’ turn to boot a play, as he left Jansen in this suddenly tied game even though his embattled reliever had thrown 32 pitches. Why not go to kid Phil Bickford there? Jansen was clearly gassed and the game was still in doubt and … not for long. On Jansen’s next pitch, LaMonte Wade Jr. knocked a sinking liner into right field to score two more runs and give the Giants a lead they never lost.
“I felt that Kenley at that point in time had the weapons to get Wade out,” said Roberts. “And again, the game should have been over, so the blame shouldn’t all be on Kenley.”
No, again, the blame for this needs to go to the team which has the fourth-best record in baseball but does not look anything like a projected World Series champion. Mookie Betts is hurt. Clayton Kershaw is hurt. Corey Seager is hurt. Cody Bellinger is awful. Kenley Jansen is questionable again. The fielding borders on atrocious.
The ninth inning Thursday wasn’t an outlier; it was a symbol of everything that has gone wrong for this team, which desperately needs health and the trading deadline to get it right.
“I think this team has absorbed gut punches many times over. It’s part of baseball. That’s what makes championship clubs championship clubs because they can rebound,” said Roberts. “Where most teams fold, we don’t do that.”
At this precarious point in the strangest of summers, their hoarse-from-all-the-booing fans can only hope he’s right.
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