One more victory to a World Series championship, and two chances to get it. Did you ever think the Dodgers would reach that point?
They’re there. They have a chance to turn the devastating insanity of Saturday night’s ninth inning into a footnote. They have an opportunity to end a 32-season drought, and particularly to wipe away the frustration of the last seven Octobers with teams that were good enough to win, and in some cases should have won, but didn’t.
Tuesday night in Arlington, Texas, Tony Gonsolin will start what is expected to be a bullpen game, and before Dodger fans throw up their hands let’s recall that a bullpen game got the Dodgers to the World Series in Game 7 of the NLCS against Atlanta, although it will be hard to envision them getting another 12 outs from Julio Urias just three days after his Game 4 start against Tampa Bay. But it’s possible.
And if they need a Game 7, they will have Walker Buehler. Do you like their chances to win one of the next two?
(Yes, smart guy in the back of the room, we hear you saying it may depend on whether they can keep the bullpen phone on mute. But Dave Roberts’ moves worked over the last three innings Sunday night, so you may want to keep that snark under wraps for the moment.)
The Dodgers’ first task Sunday was to erase the memories of Saturday night, and the Tampa Bay Rays’ two-run rally in the ninth to even the series. Three runs in the first two innings Sunday helped. But really, there shouldn’t have been much doubt in their ability to recover from Saturday night’s ninth inning gut punch, the end of a weird, wild and ultimately discouraging game.
“Everybody (in the clubhouse) was pretty positive,” Corey Seager said before the game. “You have to be at this point. Once you (left) the locker room, it was over with. We started preparing for today.
” … (Saturday) night was an extremely weird ending and kind of the whole play in general. It wasn’t just that last play. It was throughout the game, there were points where we could have been better.”
But this is the mantra Roberts has preached to his team all along, since he became the Dodgers’ manager in 2016, and as is often the case with a manager or coach, you can tell it sinks in when the players repeat the things he says. To those in the Dodger clubhouse, it is all about winning a baseball game today, and nothing else matters.
“I think it makes it easier (to shrug off adversity), but it’s not easy to do,” Roberts said. “I think that past successes or failures, things looking out, sort of bleed into kind of a player’s psyche and a team psyche. But that is a message that we believe in. And so now when you can kind of drown out all that other stuff, past and future, it does make it easier to focus on that night’s ball game.
“And (Sunday night) there were 28 players collectively focused on winning tonight. And we got it done.”
Of course, there’s always the baseball adage that momentum more often lies in the identity of that day’s starting pitcher. It has not always been a given in October that Clayton Kershaw would provide that momentum, but in facing the Rays for the second time in five days he did. His six strikeouts pushed him past Justin Verlander into No. 1 all time for postseason strikeouts, with 207, and he left the bullpen with a lead that Dustin May, Victor González and Blake Treinen took to the finish line.
Should the Dodgers pull this off, the vindication of Kershaw the postseason performer should be front and center. He came into this year with a 4.43 career postseason ERA, as well as the memories of all of those home runs surrendered in big games.
In five postseason starts this season, he is 4-1, compared to his career won-loss record of 9-11 going into these playoffs. His ERA this fall is 2.93, compared to that 4.43. His WHIP is 0.847, compared to 1.074.
A lot of that has been the result of more reasonable usage. He has not had to go on short rest, he has not been needed out of the bullpen, and Roberts said he thinks those factors have helped.
“To his credit, he will do whatever we ask,” the manager said. “And I just don’t know many pitchers that would do that. But in this situation, in this case, we’ve used him kind of more conventional (fashion). And he’s responded really well. So we’re just very lucky to have him and I couldn’t be happier that the postseason he’s had mirrors who he is as a pitcher. He deserves it and it’s great.”
Kershaw acknowledged that those moments of watching the bullpen finish his games can be difficult, not because of the relievers’ success necessarily but because sitting and watching is harder than being able to do something about it yourself.
“I was talking to some of the guys, Walker and some of the other starters,” he said. “The actual day that you pitch, you feel like you can have some say, some control of the game. But sitting there in the dugout watching the last few innings or watching a whole game, for that matter, it’s so stressful in the postseason, especially just because you care so much.”
But if the waiting was hard before, imagine what the break between Games 5 and 6 will be like, one win away.
“The off day’s gonna be hard,” he said. “It’s going to be good for us, obviously resetting our bullpen and things like that, which is huge. But sitting around one win away from a World Series is going to be hard, especially when you’ve been in the same hotel for four weeks now.
“But, you know, I think we can wait one more day and we’ll all be ready to go. Game six, I mean, for myself personally, I’m still gonna try and get ready, try and recover as best I can and be ready to pitch at any moment, just because it’s the last two games of this season.”
If he’s not needed, so much the better. Either way, whatever happens promises to be memorable.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter