Thursday night the Dodgers made sure the Cubs, who won the World Series last year, won’t get back to it this year, and Jon Lester, who’s won it three times, said, “You’re not always going to get to the World Series.”
The Dodgers should know, since they haven’t been there for 29 years. That’s the biggest gap in the franchise’s history, even more than the 26 years from 1890-1916 when they went from being nicknamed the Bridegrooms to the Grooms back to the Bridgerooms to the Superbas to the Dodgers back to the Superbas to the Robins.
Following that, being nicknamed the Dodgers for the ability to avoid streetcars, of which there are none in Los Angeles, doesn’t seem as bad as being called the Jazz in Utah, where there isn’t much.
(What is a Superba? Not sure, either. Apparently it’s Latin for either superb or suburb, arguably neither of which Brooklyn or its team was at the end of the 19th century. Another theory is that perhaps the term came from vaudeville, which would be a fitting nickname for most of Brooklyn’s baseball teams of the first four decades of the 20th century.)
The just-ended drought was longer than the Dodgers’ Series absence from 1921-1940, when Roger Kahn, who later authored The Boys of Summer about Dodgers teams that regularly did go to the Series, came of age. At least in 1933, after 40-some years of vacillation, the team changed its name from Robins to Dodgers and never changed again, even as it moved 3,000 miles away from Brooklyn.
Since the Dodgers were last in a World Series, they’re had four Cy Young winners, an MVP, six Rookies of the Year, nine managers, five owners or ownership groups, eight GMs and 11 playoff appearances.
But no pennants (maybe it didn’t help that three of the Cy Youngs and the MVP were won by Clayton Kershaw).
That’s quite a truancy for a team with so much money to spend and so many fans interested in their well-being. Watching the Dodgers try to get back to the World Series over the last 29 years has been like watching a bound man try to escape. It seemed the more they struggled, the more they became entangled in their own mess.
In the Dodgers’ 10 failed postseason attempts to return to the World Series, teams which played to a .560 percentage in the regular season played to a .373 percentage (22-37) in the postseason and were swept three times. Eight of those teams won division titles, seven won more than 90 games, all were graced with talent.
The Dodgers, like a patient going to the doctor because of an ailment for which there’s no apparent cause, couldn’t identify what was wrong.
None of the common remedies — get a new manager, get a new GM, spend more money, spend less money, trade the star, get more stars — seemed to work, though the Dodgers tried them all.
It’s one of the beautiful vagaries of baseball that it took Enrique Hernandez, a lifetime .236 hitter with 28 homers in four seasons, to hit three in Game 5 and slug the Dodgers back to the Series when Mike Piazza, Shawn Green, Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent, Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez and Manny Ramirez couldn’t.
It’s also fitting. The Dodgers hired Andrew Friedman away from the Rays after the 2014 season, and he merged a big-market mentality with a small-market common sense.
Yes, the Dodgers have the highest-paid starting pitcher in baseball in Clayton Kershaw ($35.6 million this year) and the second-highest-paid reliever in Kenley Jansen (five years, $80 million). And, yes, they’re paying $40 million to two players (Adrian Gonzalez and Scott Kazmir) unable to perform this postseason because of injury, and another $21 million to Carl Crawford, who they released last year.
That’s nearly three-quarters of what the Brewers, who nearly made the playoffs, paid their entire roster for 2017.
But the Dodgers also acquired Chris Taylor, who hit 21 homers and played five positions, last year from the Mariners for a player the latter has already cut; they signed Justin Turner, who hit .322 and slugged .530, when the Mets, who have needed a third baseman for most of their existence, let him go as a free agent; they signed Brandon Morrow (2.06 ERA, .454 OPS against), who had pitched 82.1 innings the previous three seasons, as a free agent when most teams thought he couldn’t keep healthy for a season, let alone remain effective for one.
Those are the kind of astute moves you don’t need a lot of financing to pull off.
And two months after Friedman was hired the Dodgers acquired Hernandez from the Marlins. Hernandez has batted .205 in 513 at-bats over the last two years but the Dodgers, like a good boss assessing a problem employee, focus on what he can do and emphasize that. Against lefties in his career, Hernandez is batting .270 and slugging .518 with an .883 OPS, and like Taylor, he plays multiple positions, seven of them this year.
Hernandez batted cleanup in Game 2 against Lester, a lefty, and it wasn’t by lottery. He was sixth in the lineup Thursday against Jose Quintana, another lefty, and he drove in seven runs — one fewer than the Cubs scored in five games.
It wasn’t Hernandez’s three homers Thursday that were surprising; it was the one off righty Hector Rondon (then again, Rondon faced 12 batters this postseason and gave up five hits and two homers. Maybe it wasn’t that shocking). Whenever CC Sabathia or Dallas Keuchel pitch in the World Series, Hernandez will be in the Dodgers’ lineup.
That’s the lesson of this Dodgers team. In Game 2 Hernandez walked and flied out. When his spot in the lineup was due a third time, the bases were loaded and Lester had thrown 103 pitches. Cubs manager Joe Maddon felt compelled to replace him with his second-best reliever — damning with faint praise as it is — Carl Edwards, a righty.
With Lester gone, Hernandez, batting cleanup, was, too. The Dodgers will arrive at the World Series Tuesday because they’ve generally identified what their players can do, and not asked them to do what they’re not good at.
- ALCS: Which trend do you believe? The last time the Yankees lost the first two games of a playoff series and won three straight at home was the 2001 World Series. The Diamondbacks, a team like the Astros with a history of little postseason success, returned home and won in seven. Score one for the Astros. But after every pennant the Indians have won (1920, when they beat the Brooklyn Robins in the Series; 1948, 1954, 1995, 1997 and 2016) the Yankees won the pennant the next year. Score one for the Yankees. The Astros are fortunate there is a Game 6. They’ve been outscored in the series, 21-9, outhomered, 5-1, and their bullpen has a 6.17 ERA, which is a 9.38 ERA if you take out Colin McHugh’s four mopup innings of an 8-1 Game 3. The Astros led MLB in runs scored and were second in homers in the regular season, but that hasn’t been in evidence this series. They’re batting .147, slugging .213 and their three veteran offseason acquisitions — Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick — are a combined 1-for-39. All that leadership isn’t worth much when you’re not hitting.