Before Tuesday night, the idea of the Dodgers as “failures” was, by any measure, save one, patently ridiculous. They’ve won the division eight years in a row, piled up over 100 wins in two of the past three seasons (three of the past four if you go by the rate they had this year), and were appearing in their third World Series in four years. That last feat has only been matched in recent history by the Yankees at the turn of the century, the Braves of the mid-90s (and they were helped by there not being a World Series in the middle of that), and the A’s of the late 80s.
All those teams won a World Series though, which, if you were tempted, you could break down to mere sequencing.
The ultra thick line between being known as “failures” or a truly historic team is based on the ultra thin line of not getting barely a handful of wins at a certain time amongst hundreds of wins the Dodgers have piled up over eight seasons. It’s a drop in an ocean of wins. But of course, those wins are the ones that have the most meaning attached to them.
Recently, the Dodgers weren’t even really upset to deny them a championship. In 2015 they lost to a Mets team that had two fewer wins than they did in the regular season, featuring that doomsday rotation healthy for the only time in its history. In 2016, they lost to a 103-win Cubs team that was the best in baseball. In 2017 they lost to the Astros by the thinnest of margins, and the Astros were a 101-win team. And they were also cheating, by the by. The following year they dropped to the 108-win Red Sox.
Only last year did they lose to a team that had significantly less wins than them. However, as is now known by just about every baseball fan for having it repeated ad nauseum, the Nats were the league’s best team from Memorial Day on.
But more importantly, the Nats were able to shrink their roster and give it a compression boost. So did the Red Sox before them. So did the Astros. To wit, in the 2019 Division Series, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Max Scherzer threw 28 of the 46 innings. That’s 60 percent. They threw only 40 percent of the innings in the regular season. The Nats could cut out the bottom of their roster and make themselves more. If those three pitchers were cyborgs who would never give into wear or fatigue (the kind that Dave Roberts thinks Clayton Kershaw actually is) and threw 60 percent of the innings in the regular season, the Nationals are probably a 110-win team.
In 2018, the Red Sox had David Price, Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Sale, and Rick Porcello throw 55 percent of the innings (somewhat bloated by Eovaldi’s efforts in the 18-inning Game 3). 2017 saw Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock, and Lance McCullers throw 70 percent of the innings. They were all heightened versions of themselves.
The Dodgers tried the same at times, or didn’t, but couldn’t rise above teams that were already around their level. But their strength, what makes them eight-time division champs, three-time pennant winners, and now World Series winners, are numbers 1-25 (26 this year) on the roster. The fact that they have seven or eight starting pitchers and 10 players who can be everyday players and a pen that’s flexible and deep without one true great.
This time around, there’s no way for the Rays to shrink and compress. They’re built on going to their deep bullpen early. They don’t let starters see the seventh inning, much less wheel them out again on their throw day two days later (though they were forced into it thanks to the no off-days of the ALCS). They are what you’ve seen all year.
What they were was in the Dodgers hood. They won 40 games in the more difficult “Eastern Conference” of MLB (h/t Joe Sheehan for that term than the Dodgers western one. But there was no compression boost. The Dodgers finally got to see the full version of an opponent, and won a split decision.
And now they don’t have to worry about being the Buffalo Bills, whose streak of four straight Super Bowls that may well never be matched again is lost to the quirk of not winning one. They have that final certificate.