This is a new low for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
They won the National League West by 21 games. They had the best record in the NL by nine games. They were the presumed favorite to win the NL, if not the World Series for the better part of the 2019 regular season.
Cody Bellinger put together a Most Valuable Player Award-caliber season. The Dodgers offense was relentless. They had eight consistent rotation players finish with an OPS above .800. Hyun-Jin Ryu put together a Cy Young Award-caliber season. Their pitching staff had arguably the best starting rotation trio in Major League Baseball in Ryu, Clayton Kershaw, and Walker Buehler.
Their roster has no true weakness, even with some questions arising around Kenley Jansen and the backend of the bullpen in the second half of the season. Going up against a Washington Nationals team that struggled to find postseason success and get their bullpen in order, it seemed like the Dodgers would at the very least sneak by.
What could go wrong?
The Dodgers cruised to a Game 1 victory at Dodger Stadium, 6-0, but the Nationals bounced back with a 4-2 win the ensuing night. The series then shifted to Nationals Park, where the Dodgers won Game 3 in convincing fashion, 10-4. But, once again, the Nationals bounced back by winning Game 4, 6-1, to even up the series, forcing a Game 5 in Los Angeles.
Sure enough, the Dodgers were on track to take the third and final series lead. Through seven innings, they led 3-1 after Kershaw came out of the bullpen and struck out Adam Eaton to end the seventh.
Then Dodger Stadium was stunned to the core.
In a 1-0 count, Anthony Rendon hits a leadoff home run to left field. Next pitch? A 449-foot home run by Juan Soto. Dave Roberts is forced to remove the left-hander from the hill. After back-to-back shutout innings by Kenta Maeda and Joe Kelly, the game goes to extras.
Roberts opts to stick with Kelly in the 10th inning. The levee breaks.
Eaton draws a leadoff walk, Rendon hits a double, and Soto is intentionally walked to load the bases with nobody out. Howie Kendrick steps into the batter’s box looking to give the Nationals the lead; he hits a grand slam, putting the Nationals up for good. Sean Doolittle executes a one-two-three 10th inning, and the Nationals head to the NL Championship Series.
Fire the manager? Blow it up? Make a blockbuster trade?
There’s no clear course of action for the Dodgers. They won 106 games this season, the most in franchise history. Their team is loaded from all aspects of the game. When you have an offense that features the likes of Bellinger, Justin Turner, Max Muncy, Joc Pederson, Corey Seager, and A.J. Pollock, you can hit your way into any game. When you have a starting rotation that’s headlined by Ryu, Kershaw, and Buehler, you like your chances in a five-game series, if you reach such play. When you have a bullpen that finished second in MLB in opponent batting average (.220), fourth in ERA (3.78), and 28th in walks surrendered (186), you like your chances when you have a slim lead in the late innings.
There’s no sole reason for the Dodgers losing this series, rather there are an array of reasons. Their bullpen was shaky, Bellinger hit .211, Seager hit .150, Pollock went 0-13, Kershaw gave up two devastating home runs, and Roberts was arguably too loyal to Kershaw and Kelly in Game 5. The Nationals also came up with clutch hits, their starting pitchers were lights out, and their bullpen showed up when it mattered most.
Every year it feels different with the Dodgers, this season in particular. But when push comes to shove, something continues to go wrong for them. They never had control of this series. There wasn’t a single point where it felt like the series was definitively going their way, even when they led after Games 1 and 3.
When a team falls well short of expectations, no progress is made, or postseason success isn’t repeated, the manager at some point gets the boot. Roberts hasn’t been perceived as one of the holy grail skippers in the sport. Someone who can manage at a high level and push the right buttons in the regular season? Absolutely, but here we are talking about the Dodgers losing in the first round with home-field advantage on their side.
At the same time, a manager’s impact on a game goes to a fault. If the meat of the order doesn’t produce, games will be close. If multiple relievers don’t get pivotal outs in such situations, you likely lose. When a starter comes out of the bullpen and struggles, what’re you going to do? Kershaw giving up home runs on back-to-back pitches with a two-run lead in the eighth inning of a do-or-die game is arguably the lowest moment of his big-league career. But was Roberts supposed to go to a reliever who hasn’t pitched in a big moment over the veteran?
A big part of the Nationals’ postseason success to this point has been them using Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin (the second time) out of the bullpen. In the 2017 World Series the Houston Astros countered the Dodgers with Charlie Morton to pitch the final four innings of Game 7. In the 2014 World Series the San Francisco Giants used Madison Bumgarner for the final five innings of Game 7. These all worked in the team’s favor. Kershaw simply didn’t get the job done in Game 5.
The NL West will remain the Dodgers’ division in 2020. Sure, the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres are on the rise, and the San Francisco Giants try to stay competitive. Maybe the Colorado Rockies have a bounce-back year. But if the Dodgers lose a couple rotation players and/or relievers, they’re still the clear-cut best team in their division.
It’s matter of getting it done in the postseason — and it’s a gray area with the Dodgers.
Losing to a hot ballclub in the first round of the playoffs is annoying. Losing in the Championship Series is disappointing. Losing back-to-back years in the World Series is a bummer. Losing in the first round of the playoffs after a 106-win season is discouraging.
It doesn’t get more perplexing than it is right now for the Dodgers.