On a steamy Thursday afternoon, with the clouds slowly darkening a brilliant season, the clubhouse of the mighty and magical Dodgers was filled with the sounds of ... John Mayer?
“When you’re dreaming with a broken heart, the waking up is the hardest part,” his voice crooned through a smartphone and speakers, decorating the lockers in maudlin. “You roll out of bed and down on your knees, and for a moment you can hardly breathe.”
The players are hearing it, their fans are feeling it, and with each passing day, the breathing is just a little bit harder.
The Dodgers are still a team virtually assured of a National League West championship and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but they’re not playing like it.
The Dodgers are still in control, but it feels like they are losing it.
It was bad before Thursday, 11 losses in 12 games, but Clayton Kershaw was pitching and the Dodgers had won his last 16 consecutive starts and …
And now, it is worse. Now, it’s getting serious. Kershaw gave up three runs on his first 14 pitches, gave up four runs in less than four innings, and when he threw his glove against the dugout wall, all of Dodger Stadium seemingly rattled with the thud.
Kershaw was messy, the Dodgers’ focus was stunningly careless while playing behind their ace, and the nosediving Rockies managed a 9-1 victory amid loud boos, consistent grumbling, and the rising of a real and imminent fear.
They have since gone 1-12, and, while that might be a small sample size, it’s still big enough to make one wonder.
While the Dodgers have gotten worse, the league’s other elite teams have gotten better. Their 21 1/2- game division lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks has been shockingly reduced to 10 games. As the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs are also rising, the Dodgers’ air of invincibility and intimidation is all but disappearing.
Before Thursday’s game, I asked Manager Dave Roberts if there would be a time when he could legitimately begin to worry.
“There is a time,” he said. “But not Sept. 7.”
OK, how about Sept. 8?
The team is in the middle of what has essentially been a month-long spring training as management has smartly taken advantage of the giant cushion in the standings to rest and test and configure the team for October.
But somewhere along the line, the players have begun acting like it really is spring training, swinging for the fences and fielding with their heads in the stands. The Dodgers somehow need to rediscover their urgency before the playoffs begin.
“We’re not playing for results, results are byproducts of how we go about our day, how we prepare,” Roberts said. “Honestly, the results haven’t been great, but the mind-set is still the same.”
Again, the Dodgers have still had an historic summer, and one might be tempted to compare their situation to the 2000 New York Yankees, who lost 13 of their last 15 games, but went 11-5 in the postseason while eventually winning the World Series.
One big difference. That team had already won three World Series championships in the previous four years and the players knew how to prepare. These Dodgers have endured nothing but playoff failure in the previous four years, so can any of them really afford to fill September with calisthenics?
The Dodgers have spent the last month throwing a variety of odd and sometimes ill-equipped lineups while allowing guys to nurse injuries that normally would not sideline them, all in the name of being ready for the playoffs, and the intent was initially a good one.
“For us to put ourselves in the situation to run the same guys out there through September makes no sense to anyone and doesn’t benefit anyone,” Roberts said. “It was very clear what our goal is at the start of this season, there’s a process we believe in, and while we want to win every single game, we still haven’t wavered on the ultimate goal, and we have to see this thing through.”
That was all well and good, until the process began exposing questions and concerns that there might not be time to find answers.
Do they have the starting pitching?
Do they have the bullpen setup guys for closer Kenley Jansen? Those guys have an ERA above 5.00 during this losing skid. They were counting on Pedro Baez, but probably no more. Others have been shaky. Who will get the ball to the ninth inning?
Is Corey Seager’s elbow fine, and can Cody Bellinger stay strong in the most extended playing time of his young career? Because of injuries, those two guys in the heart of the Dodgers’ offense haven’t played together since Aug. 19. Since that time, they have gone 5-14, which is not a coincidence. They need them both.
What about the rest of the opportunistic offense? Do these guys who were so amazing during the long slow stretches of the season rediscover their magic under the lights of autumn? Justin Turner, Chris Taylor, Yasmani Grandal. Logan Forsythe, Enrique Hernandez, Curtis Granderson and others seem to be occasionally lost and increasingly frustrated.
Maybe this team that won so many games with so many rotating lineups and a dugout full of questions finally needs to settle on the best group and begin running it out there every day.
“As we get into September and into October, you’ll see the best 25 players out there,” Roberts said.
Bellinger and Seager are finally scheduled to start together Friday. Darvish, Wood and Rich Hill are slated to start during the weekend.
A good time for the Dodgers to show their best would be, like, now.