If you’re going to end an eleven-game losing streak, there’s no better way to do it than the hard way. Even if the break also means you clinched a trip to the postseason at minimum. Even if you looked just a month ago as though you were going to cruise to and through the postseason, maybe aboard a supersonic aircraft.
Just ask the Dodgers, who did both Tuesday night, against a Giants team that collapsed early enough and often enough to become this year’s first team to be eliminated from the postseason.
A two-run lead. Bottom of the ninth in AT&T Park. One out, when closer Kenley Jansen opened with a strikeout on Brandon Crawford. Ducks on the pond after Denard Span singled to right and stole second, then Joe Panik and Hunter Pence each aboard on infield hits, one of which nicked off Jansen’s glove, and Buster Posey coming up.
Swinging strike. Two balls. Foul-off strike. Anyone in Los Angeles watching the game on television probably begging their kids, their wives, their significant others for refills on stiff drinks, probably doubles while they’re at it. Ball three. To a hitter who hits .333 with the bases loaded and one out this season.
Jansen pumped his best fastball and Posey swung right through it. That was no Giant sucking sound you heard from Los Angeles, that was an entire metropolitan area heaving the biggest sigh of relief in southern California. Because next came Nick Hundley, who has a whopping eight runs batted in all year and strikes out almost a third of the time he checks in at the plate.
Jansen could have struck this guy out in his sleep, but you can just bet Jansen wanted to be wide awake for this one. Swish! Swoosh! Swish! Span, Panik, and Pence probably just blinked on the bases and it was over, the Dodgers winning at last, 5-3.
Maybe the least worried man in the ballpark was Clayton Kershaw, who’d pitched a stout if not too sharp six innings on a 100-pitch limit in his second start back from a lower back strain. If he wasn’t vintage Kershaw just yet, the back strain still keeping something off his pitches, he had just enough to limit the Giants to a pair of runs one of which was abetted by a throwing error, and tie the Brewers’ Zach Davis for the major league lead with his seventeenth win.
Kershaw wanted to talk about Jansen as much as anything else after the game. “He’s the best in the league for a reason,” Kershaw said of the big righthander. “He got it done. Tonight wasn’t easy. Nothing about these past two weeks has been easy, so we shouldn’t have expected this one to be easy.
“We needed everybody to get a win tonight. It took just about everybody. More just a sense of relief now that we got a win. We can’t let up. Every time the losses keep mounting and mounting, it gets that much harder to win a game.”
Maybe Chase Utley had that in the back of his mind when he led off the Los Angeles fourth against Johnny Cueto, the Giants’ starter, and drove a 3-1 service over the right field wall to tie it at one-all, following Kelby Tomlinson’s leadoff bomb in the bottom of the third.
Maybe Kershaw himself had the same thought when he came up immediately after and sent the first pitch he saw toward the back of left center field to help himself to second, before taking third on Chris Taylor’s infield grounder that wasn’t turned into an out and scoring on Corey Seager’s first-pitch sacrifice fly.
Maybe Cody Bellinger thought comparably when, a strikeout later, he was handed a free pass for Cueto to work to Yasiel Puig. It was one of three free passes handed to the rookie, the first Dodger since 2004 and Jose Hernandez to receive such gifts in a single game.
Maybe Puig—whose metrics this year are a microcosm of one of the Dodgers’ weaknesses, chasing pitches up and away in the zone but murdering anything in the middle or inside—had his brain working similarly, when he fought his way through a full count and then rifled one to left center to send home Taylor and Bellinger.
And maybe Justin Turner, whose throwing error left room for the second Giant run in the sixth when it didn’t turn into out number two, instead, couldn’t resist the thought when—after the Giants eked out a third run, this one off reliever Ross Stripling in the seventh, with Span scoring while Pence forced Panik at second—he drove Taylor home with yet another double to deep left center in the top of the eighth, for badly needed insurance.
“A lot of relief in that clubhouse,” said manager Dave Roberts after the game. “Usually there’s handshakes, but tonight there were more hugs. Playing it cool went to the side tonight. I think it was warranted.”
Jansen wasn’t the only Dodger pitcher to punch someone out with the pads padded Tuesday night. Kershaw did it to pinch hitter Tim Federowicz to end the sixth. (You want the Giants’ season in miniature? Why on earth is a .194 lifetime hitting, lifetime third string catcher, doing as a pinch hitter?) It was a kind of payback toward Cueto—who’s still not quite himself in only three starts since he came back from the disabled list—who’d struck out Yasmani Grandal with ducks on the pond in the third.
Will it turn the Dodgers around? They’ve still won only three in their last nineteen games, and lost sixteen of eighteen, even if that third win meant a postseason clinch. But they still have the best record in the National League, and they’re not foolish enough to deny the value of September momentum. And if you believe Kershaw, they’re not going to let Tuesday night or that sad losing streak define them.
“Making the postseason’s no small feat,” he said emphatically. “Can’t take that for granted, but from where we’ve been, we want home field, we want the division, we want home field throughout the World Series. We have a lot of things to keep going for.”
One thing to avoid: history. Because, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team with a regular-seasons losing streak of nine or more has ever gone on to win a World Series. Of course, baseball teams never say no to the chance of smashing a precedent, if they can do it. And for these Dodgers, it still is a question of “if.” A big question.