Column: Grueling season and injured cornerstones left Dodgers too beat to reach World Series
The Dodgers’ season ended after losing Game 6 of the NLCS to the Atlanta Braves. Los Angeles Times sports writer Jorge Castillo, along with columnists Dylan Hernandez and Bill Plaschke, break down what happened and where the Dodgers go this offseason.
The chants can stop now, their words transposed, their challenge answered, their silence deafening.
In a year that seemed so invincible, the unthinkable has happened.
After winning a franchise-tying record 106 games in the regular season, after capturing a thrilling wild-card playoff game against the St. Louis Cardinals, after surviving a monumental series against the ancient rival San Francisco Giants, the Dodgers finally met a mountain too high on a rowdy Saturday night in the South.
It ended with a lunging stop, a whipping throw, a stretching catch. It ended with one last Dodgers shot caught, one last Dodgers runner stalled, one last Dodgers hope expired.
Southern California native Tyler Matzek shut down the Dodgers’ best chance to come back in the seventh as the Braves advance to the World Series.
The scrappy Atlanta Braves stepped on an exhausted Dodgers pitcher, shut down a depleted Dodgers offense, and breathlessly battled to a 4-2 win to clinch a four-games-to-two victory in the National League Championship Series at Truist Park.
The final play was a scorching AJ Pollock grounder that was niftily picked by spidery shortstop Dansby Swanson and perfectly thrown to first baseman Freddie Freeman, who threw his hands into the air as seemingly all of Georgia roared and danced around him.
Pollock wandered through bouncing Braves back to the Dodgers dugout, where his teammates lingered at the bat rack awkwardly and blankly staring at someone else’s party.
The Braves will now advance to their first World Series in 22 years — while seeking their first title in 26 years — in a duel with the Houston Astros.
The Dodgers, meanwhile, will go home having failed to win consecutive championships for the first time in franchise history and still having yet to win a full-season World Series championship since 1988.
“I think for my message to our guys … it was a tremendous season, it was a heck of a year,” said Manager Dave Roberts. “Going through a lot of different things that we went through that no one talked about, no one needed to talk about, and didn’t let it affect our performance, and that’s something I was proud of.”
“It’s still not lost on any of us that we didn’t accomplish our goal,” said Roberts.
The last lap was appropriately staggering for a Dodgers team that was already stumbling toward the finish line.
Their scheduled Saturday starting pitcher, Max Scherzer, wouldn’t pitch because he said his arm was tired, so Walker Buehler was forced into action on three days’ rest for only the second time in his career. Not surprisingly, he was battered for four runs in four innings, a three-run homer by unstoppable Eddie Rosario giving the Braves an eventually insurmountable 4-1 lead in the fourth inning.
Their Dodgers lineup was also missing injured cornerstones Max Muncy and Justin Turner, and it showed when they managed just five hits against five Braves pitchers and blew a dramatic opportunity to steal another victory from defeat.
In the seventh inning, trailing 4-1, the first three Dodgers reached base and a run scored on Pollock’s double, putting runners on second and third and none out. In came reliever Tyler Matzek to face Albert Pujols, Steven Souza Jr. and Mookie Betts.
Strikeout, strikeout, strikeout.
The mistakes the Dodgers made with using their pitchers ultimately played a defining role in the team failing to reach the World Series.
Matzek danced off the mound, the Dodgers wandered aimlessly into the dugout, the crowd began partying, and the Dodger blue magic that had carried them so far, for so long, finally disappeared.
“I’m not one to make excuses for anything, truly I don’t, but we should have won the series,” said Buehler. “That’s our belief. But we have some really big guys in our lineup and really big guys in our rotation that can’t play or are hurt. That’s a real thing.”
Thus ended a season that started with astronomical hopes, so high that this columnist proclaimed the Dodgers would finish as the best team in baseball history. While they won that amazing number of games, they finished six wins short of history and short of expectations.
Injuries happened. Bad decisions happened. Trevor Bauer happened.
They started the year with three Cy Young Award winners on their staff. Then Bauer was placed on administrative leave amid sexual assault allegations, Clayton Kershaw was injured, and David Price lost his best stuff.
They started the year with two regular season MVP position players and one World Series MVP in the lineup. Then Betts injured his hip, Corey Seager broke his hand, and Cody Bellinger basically stank.
The Dodgers were eliminated from the postseason after losing NLCS Game 6 to the Atlanta Braves. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts discusses what happened and what the offseason will bring.
They also started the year missing two players whose absence would later haunt them. The front office let clutch heroes Kiké Hernández and Joc Pederson both walk through free agency, and never really replaced them.
It was perhaps no coincidence that, earlier in October, on a night when the Dodgers were shut out by the San Francisco Giants in the NL Division Series, Hernández’s bat was winning a playoff series for the Boston Red Sox and Pederson’s bat was winning a playoff game for the Braves.
The pearl-wearing Pederson will play on. The Dodgers will not.
“Everywhere we go it’s, ‘Beat L.A., Beat L.A.,’” said Betts. “Everybody’s after you … it’s hard to be on top … everybody wants to be on top and it’s a battle to keep everybody away.”
Despite their relatively shallow roster, the Dodgers still battled through their mistakes and misfortune in the regular season to keep the heat on the surprising Giants, and after they acquired Washington Nationals stars Scherzer and Trea Turner at the late-summer trading deadline, it appeared they were ready to win a ninth consecutive NL West championship.
But in the season’s last month, the Giants seemingly never lost, and the Dodgers could never quite catch them. The Dodgers wound up losing the division by one game on the final day of the season, forcing them into a single-elimination wild-card game against the Cardinals. They won that game on Chris Taylor’s dramatic walk-off home run, then continued the drama in the first postseason series against the rival Giants in their 131 years of competition.
The Dodgers won that National League Division Series in a winner-take-all fifth game that ended deliciously with Cody Bellinger’s ninth-inning single in San Francisco’s Oracle Park, but it turns out, the emotion consumed them and the stress overwhelmed them.
The Dodgers beat the Giants, but, truth be told, the Giants series eventually beat them.
By the time they arrived in Atlanta for the start of the National League NL Championship Series against the Braves, the Dodgers were exhausted, and it showed. Even though the Dodgers won 18 more games than the Braves during the regular season, they weren’t sharp enough to capitalize on their seeming superiority.
In the first game, they lost in the bottom of the ninth after Taylor committed a baserunning blunder. In the second game, they blew a lead and lost in the bottom of the ninth again after Manager Dave Roberts wrongly allowed starter Julio Urías to pitch in a high-pressure relief situation for the first time this season.
“I think we’re tired and ready to get home,” said Taylor after the Game 2 loss.
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When the series returned to Los Angeles, the Dodgers won two out of three games including stealing a stirring comeback win in Game 3 on Bellinger’s three-run, eighth-inning home run and Betts’ ensuing RBI double.
They then used three home runs from Taylor to win Game 5 and send it back to Atlanta. But In the end, it was all too much, leaving fans to ponder a future Dodgers team that could lose several players to free agency, including Kershaw, Scherzer, Seager, Taylor and Kenley Jansen.
But it was all too much, as evidenced by
Mookie Betts’ quotes before Game 5.
“Well, we got a couple injuries, I mean, I think that’s the main thing is having, being down a starter,” he said. “Obviously going into this series ... we were kind of behind the eight ball at the start.”
In the end, baseball’s defending World Series champions had a successful year in the standings but an abbreviated appearance in the postseason, and thus by their high standards this season must be considered a failure.
Nobody will actually chant this, but the truth will remain through a long cold winter.
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