Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 7, 2021

More Drama Than The Dodgers Deserved

Many months ago, when the year was young and the entirety of the longest season lay ahead, the popular thinking was that players who wear Dodger Blue would spend the first half of this week resting up before beginning their march through the postseason.  It would be a chance to recover a bit from the wear and tear of the six-month grind that is major league baseball’s annual schedule while manager Dave Roberts and the franchise’s front office leadership analyzed the mountains of data generated by the team’s analytics department, weighing the wisdom of including this or that utility player or situational reliever on the roster for the upcoming Division Series.  The Dodgers were overwhelmingly popular picks by fans and pundits alike, not just to make the 2021 MLB Playoffs, but to win the NL West race, thus earning a well-deserved break while lesser squads faced the drama and tension of the two leagues’ win-or-go-home Wild Card Games.

But there is always a reason why they actually play the games, though in this case not necessarily a happy one for the Dodgers’ faithful.  At season’s end L.A. was only second-best in the NL West, leaving the Dodgers with work to do just to make it to the best-of-five division round.

Still, it’s hard to construe that outcome as a failure on the part of the Dodgers.  The team finished 106-56, matching the best result in franchise history.  Down the stretch, even as the presumptive major division rival San Diego Padres crumbled, L.A. tore through its schedule, going 43-13 over the final two months, a phenomenal 124-win-season pace.  But the Dodgers began that stretch three games behind the Giants, and despite winning more than three of every four games through August and September, L.A. could not overtake San Francisco, which ended the season clinging to a one-game advantage.  San Fran’s remarkable and utterly unexpected campaign stopped the Dodgers’ eight-year run atop the NL West.  It also meant that at Chavez Ravine, the sole reward for triple-digit wins and the second-best record in the majors was getting to host a Wild Card matchup against St. Louis, another extremely hot squad that ran off a 17-game winning streak in September to climb back into the playoff chase, eventually securing the National League’s second Wild Card spot.

All that winning in the season’s final month allowed the Cardinals to post a 90-win season, a not atypical number for a Wild Card, especially since 2012, when the postseason format was changed to incorporate two such teams in each league.  But that expansion brought with it the Wild Card Game, a 9-inning roll of the dice.  Members of a .500 team at the trade deadline, St. Louis players were doubtless happy to have even that modest playoff opportunity.  But it had the makings of a rude joke on the Dodgers, a team that finished sixteen games ahead of the Cards with a record that would have easily topped the standings in any division of either league, except the one that mattered.   

For a time Wednesday night, it looked like fate might twist especially cruel for L.A. fans.  Max Scherzer, who with Trea Turner formed one of the all-time great trade deadline acquisitions by any franchise when L.A. outbid San Diego for the services of the then-Nationals back in July, was uncharacteristically lacking in command.  He surrendered a run in the 1st and couldn’t manage to throw a clean inning even as his pitch count rapidly climbed.  But while he allowed base runners, Scherzer didn’t allow any more runs, and in the home half of the 4th Justin Turner finally evened the score with a long home run off the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright. 

The very next inning Scherzer was back in trouble, yielding a leadoff single to Tommy Edman before walking Paul Goldschmidt.  He fanned Tyler O’Neill, but in the L.A. dugout manager Roberts had decided the strikeout would be Scherzer’s final act of the drama.  Never one to leave the mound willingly, Scherzer surely didn’t like seeing Roberts on his way to the mound.  When his manager arrived and reached out for the ball, the Dodgers’ starter instead shook the offered hand.  The gesture didn’t change Roberts’s mind, as he reached into Scherzer’s glove to retrieve the baseball even as Joe Kelly jogged in from the L.A. bullpen.  Scherzer may not have been happy, but Dodgers fans were after Kelly did his job, retiring the next two batters. 

The well-traveled Kelly was the first of nine relievers who made the trek from the two bullpens.  Each was effective for his side until the very last.  With the score still knotted at 1-1 in the bottom of the 9th, St. Louis manager Mike Shildt summoned Alex Reyes to face Chris Taylor with two outs and Cody Bellinger on first.  Taylor swung and missed at the first offering, then watched the next two pitches go by below the strike zone.  Reyes’ fourth pitch was a slider that stayed up over the middle of the plate.  When bat met ball, the few in the crowd who weren’t already standing leapt to their feet as a guttural roar rose from more than 53,000 throats.  The only question was how many rows up in the left field seats the walk-off two-run homer would land.  The answer looked to be eight or ten.

If only because it is so rare, the presence of a 106-win team in a Wild Card Game won’t lead to changes in MLB’s postseason format.  But just as the Great Game’s regular season is lengthy, the sport’s remaining postseason rounds involve a series of games, and for good reason.  The outcome of any single contest can turn on numerous factors, some of them quite random.  It takes multiple games to lessen that element of chance and increase the likelihood of the best team prevailing.  Sustained regular season excellence such as L.A. showed this year deserves a better reward than a single nine-inning crapshoot.

Still, thanks to one swing of Chris Taylor’s bat the Dodgers will play on, traveling up the coast to visit the Giants Friday for Game 1 of the round almost everyone thought would be the team’s starting point in this year’s playoffs.  It is a Division Series between this season’s two winningest teams, the twin parts of a venerable rivalry that spans both coasts.  Yet while the two franchises met in 1951 and 1962 in the netherworld between the regular and postseason (MLB appropriately counts tiebreaker games as part of the regular season), the Giants and Dodgers have not met in the playoffs since 1889, long before MLB’s modern era.  For all these reasons the NLDS that is about to get underway has the makings of an epic showdown.  Then again, they still have to actually play the games.

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