Every great baseball team hits a skid at some point or another; the season is too long and too taxing for even the best teams not to. Even the 1998 Yankees, probably the greatest team of all time, spent the first three weeks of September struggling to put together two wins in a row; two years later they closed out the season 3-15 on the way to winning their fourth World Series in five years.
The Dodgers can’t seem to get out of the skid. The team that once looked destined for historical greatness has now lost seven games in a row and 12 of their last 13. Their only recent win came in Clayton Kershaw’s first start back after a stint on the disabled list; last night, Kershaw was pulled in the fourth inning. It was his worst start of the year.
At the end of the night, reliever Josh Ravin gave up two runs on bases-loaded walks—the most undignified of outcomes. The Rockies won 9-1, but the final score barely mattered. Kershaw is, by his standards, pissed. Andy McCullough reports that the team has basically resorted to terrible, stale soft rock to try to right the ship:
There are melancholy times. Inside the clubhouse before the game, the playlist burbled with soft rock. The Fray discussed how to save a life. Jason Mraz promised not to give up. Michael Buble insisted the best is yet to come. John Mayer dreamed with a broken heart. All they were missing was Bob Marley swearing that everything was going to be all right.
Look, the Dodgers have 92 wins on September 8; they’re fine, and will finish with 103 wins if they simply play .500 ball over the next three weeks. (Baseball Prospectus projects them to end up with 105, which sounds reasonable considering that they’re blessed with two series against the impotent Giants and one each against the Phillies and Padres.) The Diamondbacks are surging, winning 10 in a row and sweeping their weekend series against the Dodgers, and it’s still only brought them within 10 games of the division lead. If the Dodgers were to play as badly over their last 22 games as the Red Sox did during their legendary 2011 collapse, Arizona would still have to play .727 ball over the rest of the season just to catch them. The math is the math.
The bigger issue here is that this run has exposed that for all their money and talent, the Dodgers are no threat to dethrone the ’98 Yankees, and perhaps never were. Just a month ago, it seemed like the Dodgers had no weaknesses. They had Kershaw, an inner-circle Hall of Famer before his 30th birthday; they had Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager, top prospects who entered the majors as fully mature superstars; and they had seemingly limitless depth, with even the unexciting likes of Chris Taylor playing like real All-Stars and the team’s strategy of stockpiling fragile yet effective starting pitchers working well. About half the team was on the disabled list at one point, and it didn’t seem to matter at all.
As the last two weeks have showed, though, the unexciting reality is that baseball’s normal gravity applies to the Dodgers, a team like any other, highly reliant on their very best players. In this case those players are generally very young, injury-prone, and/or overperforming, and so it’s perhaps unsurprising in retrospect that the wheels came off. Kershaw has been injured, Bellinger has been bad, Seager has been injured and bad, and Taylor has played like Taylor. Of the team’s top five players by WAR, only Justin Turner has done well lately, continuing to inexplicably play like Chipper Jones. A team deliberately not built around reliable stars in their primes has played like a team that doesn’t have reliable stars in their primes. The sheer depth of their badness is shocking—they’ve scored only 28 runs to opponents’ 74 during this run, meaning, really, that both the offense and the pitching have been screwed— but the fact of it isn’t. They’ve played badly for something like the same reasons they’ve played well.
Even so, having their generational ace flunk on the mound, then hurl his glove at the dugout wall in anger, is a low, low point for the Dodgers as they head into the final stretch—lower, perhaps, than the team blowing first a perfect game and then even a win for Rich Hill in a game in which he pitched nine innings of no-hit baseball.
What isn’t clear is whether any of this actually matters. Jason Mraz is an undoubted cry for help; they’re one loss away from Gavin DeGraw, for crying out loud; they may continue to plummet through time and culture, and their final series against the Rockies may be known as the Matchbox Twenty weekend. It will remain well-established that late-season performance has essentially no meaningful correlation to playoff performance. If Kershaw’s arm flies off on the mound, Seager comes down with plague, and Turner loses all his strength after an ill-advised haircut, they’ll be doomed; if not, they’ll enter the playoffs as what they are, probably the best team in baseball and one whose somewhat quirky design makes them something of a high-variance team, probably likelier than any other team to sweep every playoff series they play and perhaps likelier than the average 100-win team to just lay down and die.
Godspeed, Los Angeles. A historically great season will now require a historically great stretch run, and there’s no special reason to think it’s coming; as is, the Dodgers are just a normal excellent team facing such normal issues as the fact that the reincarnation of Sandy Koufax does not pitch like Sandy Koufax in October. At least everyone in their city will be able to see what happens on their televisions.