On June 26th in Pittsburgh, Clayton Kershaw had his worst game of the season. That isn’t saying too much, given that he only had one bad inning- LITERALLY ONE BAD INNING– the entire season, up until that point. Not only was he arguably having the greatest season for a starting pitcher ever, but outside of Corey Seager, was just about the only Dodger on the field worth the price of admission. The Dodgers would end up losing that game. Far more horrifically, they would lose Kershaw himself, to a back injury. At 8 games back, it appeared to be an early nail in the coffin for the 2016 Dodgers, who looked absolutely hapless for the 4 out 5 games that the 3 time Cy Young award winner was reduced to dugout cheerleader. Instead, it became a turning point.
Many baseball journalists had foolishly written the Dodgers off in 2014, after just witnessing a massive midseason turnaround in 2013 that saw the team running away with the NL West. But in Dodger years, with so much turnover both on the field and off the field, 2014 felt like a lifetime ago. Anyone who’d written the team off after Kershaw got hurt this season, after seeing such a lackluster performance from anyone BESIDES him and Corey Seager, couldn’t reasonably be expected to conclude otherwise. And yet…
Here we are, in the same spot we’ve found ourselves since 2013- with the Dodgers celebrating a first place finish, by a surprisingly comfortable margin. Coincidence or not, the team really seemed to wake up with Kerhsaw’s injury, particularly the offense. One of the main contributors, Justin Turner, had also anchored the 2014 comeback, when he came out of nowhere to become the Dodgers best hitter in the second half of that season. (He didn’t quite reach those heights this season, but he wasn’t far off.) In hindsight, ironically enough, that game in Pittsburgh seemed to be something of a turning point for his season, personally, providing the only offense in that loss. Joc Pederson, Adrian Gonzalez and Yasmani Grandal also came to life shortly after. Promising outfield rookie Andrew Toles picked up where Trayce Thompson left off early on, while Chase Utley and Howie Kendrick turned out to be smart veteran re-signings. Even Andre Ethier, as unlikely a Dean of The Dodgers as there ever was, made a cameo appearance in September, after recovering from an unfortunate fluke injury that took him out for nearly the entire season.
And then there’s Yasiel Puig. I don’t think the writers at Friends brought out the, “Will They Or Won’t They?” storyline for Ross and Rachel, as many times as we’ve seen Puig go from Hero-To-Zero and back again. After a fantastic first few games this season, Puig spent the next few months largely in oblivion, losing not only his starting spot, but his spot on the Major League roster. It’s a true shame, not just for the Dodgers, but for Major League Baseball, a sport that NEEDS Puig to be relevant, if not a star. The good news is that after spending some time in purgatory (aka Oklahoma), Puig seems closer to being a hero again, helping the Dodgers with their final push towards the finish line by unhinging Madison Bumgarner, in a way that only Puig can. Well…maybe not ONLY Puig can, but no one does it better!
But while the Dodgers offense coming to life somewhat explains their life after Kershaw, the pitching is much more baffling. Kenta Maeda was good, but rarely got past the 6th inning. Nobody else achieved a double digit number of quality starts. The only one who came close- Scott Kazmir with nine- had a 4.56 ERA. The bullpen, outside of Kenley Jansen, was made up of retreads and no names, yet they got the job done consistently, particularly Joe Blanton- and they were relied upon A LOT. It sounds inconceivable, but the Dodgers second half steamroll came in an environment where more than half the games were bullpen by committee. It was such a mess, Rich Hill became the first Major League pitcher ever to be pulled while throwing a perfect game (!) after 7 innings, because that’s just how fragile the Dodgers’ starting pitching situation was.
And how about Dave Roberts, the man in charge who made that controversial but understandable decision? (It wasn’t even his first one this season.) If anything, he deserves a bonus for the arrows he took for his tough decision making, and ultimately should be rewarded by being named NL Manager of the Year. Everyone knows how great Joe Maddon is, but he had a far superior roster. Giving the award to the Cubs skipper would simply be a recognition for the guy who helms the team with the best record, without any regard to the circumstances. Dave Roberts managed to deal with one of the most injury-plagued teams in franchise history, and he did so in his first year with the team. He had to make CONSTANT adjustments, and he met the challenge brilliantly. We have a few extra weeks before the ink dries overall, but the fact that he even got the team THIS far is already something that he should be proud of.
As for the front office? That’s a tough one. Their methods are controversial and often maddening to those of us who appreciate a more traditional, simple approach to baseball. The smug attitude of some of their defenders can be even MORE maddening. But it can’t be denied that after two years of constant roster moves, their formula has been successful more than not, even when many of us were convinced that it would fail. This season, in particular, has been a real triumph for them, not shelling out 9 digit contracts to Zack Greinke- or Johnny Cueto, for that matter- yet finishing with far better records than those teams who did. Of course, that’s not to count out the Giants for the postseason- it IS an even year, after all. But in a 162 game schedule, half of which was played without Kershaw, credit needs to be given where credit is due. So well done, Andrew Friedman and Fahran Zaidi. Two cheers for them each. We’ll see what October brings.
And finally, saving the best for last, we have the man who gets to leave Dodger Stadium on a high note. It is impressive for anyone to be working full-time at 67 years, but to be working full-time for 67 years is unheard of. Absolutely unheard of. But for Vin Scully, the voice of the Dodgers since they played on the other side of the country, whose career has spanned well over half of the ENTIRE HISTORY of “modern” Major League Baseball (counting from about 1901 or so), it was truly a wonderful tribute to have him call one more final walk-off that will go down in Dodger history- courtesy of Charlie Culberson, a man who hadn’t hit a home run all season. (Naturally.) And, to top it all off, Mr. Scully managed to share with the world one last talent that he possesses- he can sing! (There is far more to say, but this post is long enough, and Keith Olbermann can say it much better than I can, anyway.)
Three games remain in San Diego, then another three in San Francisco, in a series far more crucial to the Giants than the Dodgers, before the REAL fun begins…