It has been the narrative all season around the Dodgers, and particularly in September: Catching the San Francisco Giants and winning a ninth consecutive division title was paramount, above all to avoid the one-and-done, roll-the-dice, edge-of-the-cliff wild card game.
But what if it isn’t that risky?
It’s worth noting that when the Giants became the first team to clinch a postseason berth Monday night, their celebration was about what you would expect from a team that hadn’t been there since 2016. As for the Dodgers, when they punched their ticket on Tuesday night there were reports of “a champagne toast” in the clubhouse but otherwise, nothing wild, which befits a group that’s been there before.
— KNBR (@KNBR) September 14, 2021
Final: 8-4 Dodgers. They’re going to the playoffs.
Postgame celebration? High fives, handshakes and fist-bumps. The usual.
— J.P. Hoornstra (@jphoornstra) September 15, 2021
Maybe they would have preferred to wait a day. San Diego’s loss to the Giants secured the Dodgers’ ninth straight postseason berth but also kept them 2-1/2 games back in second place. I suspect Dodger fans would have preferred to wait as well.
But hear me out: Navigating the wild card game might not be the preferred start for a championship run, but it is possible.
The Giants did it in 2014, with Madison Bumgarner (yeah, him) pitching a complete game shutout in the win-or-go-home game in Pittsburgh en route to the team’s third title in five years. And the Washington Nationals did it in 2019, beating Milwaukee in the wild card game, beating the Dodgers in the next round and going on to win it all in a Game 7 in Houston.
If the Dodgers need any tips, by the way, Max Scherzer can fill them in. He started that 2019 game for the Nats against the Brewers, left after five innings with a 3-1 deficit, and watched his team score three runs in the eighth to flip the script.
But enough about history. This time, the Dodgers’ pitching seems perfectly situated for the postseason. (The hitting, and the idea that you never know what you’ll get on a given night from this bunch? That’s still potentially worrisome.)
We second-guessed Manager Dave Roberts a couple of weeks ago about not setting up his rotation to make sure Scherzer pitched against the Giants in San Francisco. I stand by that second guess, but Roberts might have been playing the long game.
Now he has a full five-man rotation again, with no need for the foolishness of bullpen games as long as that fivesome stays intact. Plot that rotation through the final 2-1/2 weeks of the regular season, and you’d get Walker Buehler – proven big-game pitcher – starting either the wild card, or Game 1 of the Division Series, or even a one-game playoff with the Giants if it comes to that.
And after that you’ve got Scherzer, and Clayton Kershaw, and then Julio Urías and back to Buehler again, a four-man playoff rotation again feasible now that we’re back to a postseason with off days built in. When a rested and healthy Kershaw is your No. 4 starter, who else in the postseason can match that? (And with two off days in the final 15 of the regular season, Roberts could manipulate the rotation to line up Urías, Buehler, Scherzer and Kershaw in order to start the postseason.)
“I’ve said it from day one: You win with starting pitching,” Roberts said after Tuesday night’s 8-4 win. “And I believe we have the best starting pitching in baseball. And so to get Clayton back on line, Tony (Gonsolin) back on line, and get those other three guys having the years that they’re having, I love where we’re at.”
That’s one factor. Another is a bullpen that has quietly become lights-out dependable as the season has progressed. We all know what can happen in the postseason, but who anticipated the dependability of guys like Phil Bickford and Alex Vesia five months ago?
The other factor? L.A. entered Wednesday night’s game with a 17-game cushion over the St. Louis Cardinals, who began the day as the second wild card team. The Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets also remain in contention for that second spot, and none of those teams are striking fear in anybody’s hearts right now.
As for that offense? The Dodgers beat up on Arizona pitching on Monday and Tuesday nights and had averaged 6.5 runs per game in their last four against the D-Backs and Padres. Justin Turner noted after Tuesday night’s game that “the at-bat quality, one through nine every inning, just keeps getting better and better.” But it remains to be seen if they can keep it up consistently – the key word – against postseason-quality pitching.
Maybe the Dodgers catch the Giants, maybe they don’t. But consider: One ace gets them through the wild card game, and then they’d get the Giants head-to-head (starting in San Francisco, but it doesn’t really make a difference) with three more ace-quality pitchers ready to go. Going into Wednesday, Urías, Buehler, Scherzer and Kershaw have a collective 2.60 ERA and 49-14 record – and, more significantly, the team is 60-22 in games they’ve started. (Plus a combined 401 innings of postseason experience, and the rings that come with it.)
So, Dodger fans, you’re welcome to play scoreboard. You can be sure your team will be trying hard to catch the Giants and get not only the extra couple of days off but the extra home game in the NLDS. But if they don’t, there’s no need to panic.
Not right away, at least.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter