It felt like October, sweaters, blankets, fans huddled and howling.
It looked like October, Dodgers and Washington Nationals, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, playoff shadows, Cy Young shine.
Then the October game started, and the Dodgers fell flat back into April.
Clayton Kershaw scuffling, bats flailing, defense beaten by a bunt.
An early rally was ended by two strikeouts against the great Scherzer. A late rally was ended by two strikeouts against the league’s worst bullpen. The clincher was a bases-loaded walk by Pedro Baez.
Dodger Stadium filled with boos. The Dodgers’ dugout eventually emptied with a hush. The only fireworks occurred later, with fans on the field and Whitney Houston on the loudspeaker.
Just when it seemed like the Dodgers’ early-season fog had lifted — they had won four straight by a combined score of 37-12! — in a 5-2 loss to the Nationals on Friday night.
So far against playoff teams from last season, the Dodgers are 1-6, and look every bit of it. Something is missing. Something seems off. A wild swing here. A hanging pitch there.
They still seem hung over. They still act distracted. Even a playoff atmosphere couldn’t help.
This game warmed up with a single word.
“Intensity,’’ Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said in the dugout in the late afternoon. “Two of the best guys competing, you look at it as, two champion boxers going toe to toe.’’
The game actually began, however, with a very different word.
Trea Turner knocked Kershaw’s first pitch into the left-field corner for a double. Howie Kendrick drove his second pitch to center field for a flyout. Bryce Harper knocked his third pitch into right field to a run-scoring single.
Three pitches, three connecting swings, one run, and that’s not all. Kershaw then threw a wild pitch to Ryan Zimmerman, who followed up with a double to the center-field wall to score the second run.
“End of the day, I didn’t make enough good pitches with runners in scoring position,” said Kershaw “Going against Max, that’s going to be tough.”
Giving Scherzer a two-run lead is indeed like giving most other pitchers a 10-run lead. It was an uphill climb. The journey wasn’t helped by the four runs allowed by Kershaw in seven innings. The nine Nationals hits against him were his most allowed hits in nearly a year. He struck out only four.
In the end, instead of a nice early-season moment, this was a game that simply reminded the Dodgers of what could have been, and what could still be.
On the Nationals’ mound was a player who got away. In the Nationals’ lineup was a player who could still be coming.
Watching Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner who allowed one run and struck out nine in six innings, thoughts drifted back to a lost opportunity.
The Dodgers could have had him.
It was the winter after the 2014 season. Scherzer was a free agent. Pitching for the Detroit Tigers, he had already won one Cy Young, had led the league in wins in the previous two seasons, and had more than 200 strikeouts in three straight years. He was 30, but he had thrown more than 200 innings only twice in his first six big-league seasons.
Los Angeles was one of the places he wanted to come. He pitched well in Dodger Stadium, he liked the Dodgers’ championship hopes, and the Dodgers were one of the few teams that could pay him.
But Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi had just been hired as Dodgers baseball bosses. They were new, facing a daunting remodeling job, and Scherzer just wasn’t a priority. First, with Kershaw and Zack Greinke leading the rotation, they weren’t sure they could justify the seven years and $210 million that it would eventually take to sign Scherzer. Second, their attention was taken by what they felt were more pressing needs, like the trading of Matt Kemp and the signing of back-end starters Brett Anderson and Brandon McCarthy to fill out the rotation.
At the time, many folks thought Scherzer was being overpaid and the Dodgers were just being smart. In hindsight, it became the biggest misjudgment of the Friedman and Zaidi era.
If Scherzer were in the rotation, this Dodgers group could have won two World Series by now. If Scherzer were here, the Dodgers would never have really missed the departed Greinke.
The Dodgers will have another shot at something like this next winter when Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper becomes a free agent. They will surely be ready this time.
Harper, who reached base twice with a single and a walk while scoring a run Friday night, is not only one of the best players in the game, but he’s also the one with the highest ceiling. He’s only 25, yet he’s already made the All-Star team five times and won the MVP award in 2015 with a league-leading 44 homers.
Harper plays with a floppy-hair-and-bearded flair that is perfect for Hollywood, and he could be a legacy saver for the Dodgers ownership. He’s probably the most recognizable face in baseball, and his popularity is such that one could see viewers demanding to see him on DirecTV, leading to an end to the five-year blackout.
Remember several years ago when the Lakers’ blackout lasted about 10 minutes, until DirecTV realized everyone wanted to watch Kobe Bryant? This could be the same thing, and the Dodgers know it. They cut salary this winter and didn’t make any big financial moves with the understanding that they wanted to keep the wallet available for the likes of Harper, who could command a 10-year deal worth $400 million.
They could have used him Friday night. They were searching for a little October. They only found more April.