“If you don’t win the World Series,” said Freddie Freeman, who won one with the Braves last year before signing with the Dodgers as a free agent following the owners’ lockout, “it’s just disappointment right now.” But you have to get to the Series for a shot at winning it.
The Dodgers won’t get there this time. Hours after the likewise-underdog Phillies shoved the Braves home for the winter to finish National League upset number one, baseball’s winningest regular season team couldn’t get past a National League division series against a band of upstart Padres that finished the furthest back in their division of any of this year’s postseason entrants.
Go ahead and blame manager Dave Roberts, if you must, for failing to do what plain sense instructed but, apparently, his Book instructed not to even think about it just yet. That was his best reliever, Evan Phillips, still sitting in the pen all seventh inning long, instead of being on the mound in the bottom of the seventh when he was needed most.
The Dodgers managed to eke out a 3-0 lead entering the inning, thanks to Freeman’s two-run double in the top of the third and Will Smith’s bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the top of the seventh. When the Padres answered with a leadoff walk, a base hit, and an RBI single without Tommy Kahnle recording a single out, Roberts needed a stopper with the Dodgers’ season squarely on the line.
And, with the Padres hell bent on not letting the set go to a Game Five in which they’d face a Dodgers’ starter, Julio Urias, who held them to three runs in Game One while the Dodgers bushwhacked their starter Mike Clevinger.
Roberts had that stopper in the pen. When Cardiac Craig Kimbrel spun out in the season’s final third and off the postseason roster entirely, Phillips became the Dodger pen committee’s number one arm. He posted the 1.94 fielding-independent pitching rate (FIP), the 1.13 ERA, the 11 strikeouts-per-nine rate, and the 5.54 strikeout-to-walk ratio to prove it.
He was the invisible man in the fateful bottom of the seventh. Roberts lifted Kahnle for Yency Almonte, whose 1.02 ERA and 0.97 walks/hits per inning pitched rate on the season were belied by a 3.17 FIP. Ha-Seong Kim slipped an RBI double past Max Muncy at third and Juan Soto dumped an RBI single into right immediately following. Game tied. Whoops.
Almonte got rid of Manny Machado on a strikeout and Brandon Drury on a foul out. Roberts lifted him for a barely-warm Alex Vesia, and Jake Cronenworth greeted Vesia with a two-run single on 2-2. When Vesia ended the inning a walk later by striking Jurickson Profar out, the Dodgers were sunk.
“I feel like that’s been my lane the last couple days in the series,” Almonte said postgame. “I made the pitches I wanted to make, but they hit the ball and did what they had to do. They get paid as well. I get paid to make pitches, and they went their way.”
Even if they didn’t know it just yet. Even if they’d go down in order against Padres reliever Robert Suarez in the top of the eighth. Then Phillips got the call, for the bottom of the eighth. He struck the side out in order. Normally that might have sent a cross-country sigh of relief forth.
“Tommy, Yency, and Ves, they’ve all been out there,” Phillips said postgame, “and they’ve all competed their butts off this year and gotten big outs for us at times. The game of baseball doesn’t always go your way. Was I anticipating pitching in some sort of situation like that? Sure. But I still consider the three outs I got as just as important. Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way.”
But these Dodgers hit only .227 in this division series. They experienced insult added to injury when Josh Hader, well-revived in San Diego after faltering in Milwaukee at last, struck the side out in order likewise to nail the Padres’ trip to the National League Championship Series.
“I know the job’s not done,” said the Padres’ Game Four starter, Joe Musgrove. “We’ve got a lot of baseball ahead of us still, but this is something that needs to be celebrated. Those guys handed it to us all year long, and when it came down to it and we needed to win ballgames, we found ways to do it.”
Thus did Tyler Anderson’s five scoreless innings in the biggest start of his life, after he’d signed an $8 million 2022 deal with no rotation guarantee attached, go to waste. Thus did a 111-win season go to waste. Thus did the Dodgers become one of three 100+ winning teams to leave this postseason early. Thus do the Padres give San Diego above-and-beyond excitement and further hope.
“They played better than us,” said future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw, whose Game Two misery only began when Machado sent a 2-1, two-out pitch over the left field fence in the top of the first. “It’s hard to admit sometimes, but that’s the truth of it. They just beat us.”
The Dodgers helped beat themselves, too. Kershaw might not have had his best night in Game Two, but the Dodgers’ bats, concurrently, went to the plate with men in scoring position eight times and went hitless. They might really have begun beating themselves when Walker Buehler went down to Tommy John surgery and the Dodgers couldn’t find another established starter to fortify the rotation.
We’ll never know for dead last certain. We do know that a crowd of Padres moves that began with signing Machado to that $300 million plus deal, and climaxed with bringing Soto aboard from the remaking/remodeling Nationals at this year’s trade deadline, turned the Padres from the downstate kid brothers into the ones who showed their big brothers how little size matters if and when push comes to shove.
Roberts has taken his lumps from Dodger fans who seem to question every inning, never mind game, in which they fall short and any given move or non-move can be scrutinised to death. It comes with the job. He can say proudly that he’s managed the Dodgers to six NL West titles (including five straight) in seven seasons. Very few skippers can hang that on their shingles.
Now Roberts presides over a group who won more regular season games than any group in the Dodgers’ long and storied history from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. The problem is that he has only one pandamnic-short-season, surrealistically-scheduled World Series title to show for it.
He also got out-generaled and out-played with particular pronouncement by this band of Padres who survived no few lumps of their own to get here at all. Then he picked the wrong time to forget the import of getting your absolute best relief option out there to keep the upstarts from getting particularly frisky when you have them on the brink of forcing one more game, one more chance to send them home for the winter.
It’s not quite as grave as that 2014 night then-Cardinals manager Mike Matheny left his best bullpen option in the pen waiting while sticking with a still-rusty pitcher and watching the pennant fly onto Levi’s Landing aboard Travis Ishikawa’s three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth, of course. But it’s close enough. And the pain of the sting is almost as profound.
Don’t blame Roberts entirely. The man who guaranteed a Dodger World Series in back in May couldn’t have predicted that they wouldn’t be able to hit in this division series almost at all, never mind when it mattered the most, if they weren’t named Freeman and Trea Turner, and Turner did it through a lingering finger issue.
“It’s whoever gets the big hits, and they got the big hits,” said Justin Turner (division series OPS: .466) after the Padres sealed the proverbial deal against himself and his mates. “You can point your fingers to whatever you want, but the bottom line is we didn’t get the job done. We got beat.”
As the Padres now prepare for a pennant showdown with the Phillies, their message for now should be loud enough and clear enough: Little brothers are watching you.