In a pandemic-abridged regular season that was supposed to make every result matter more than ever, the Dodgers methodically rendered the 2020 schedule a practice run. For 60 games, they plowed through the opponents placed in front of them, inferior foes west of the Mississippi in both leagues, from beginning to end, and avoided a COVID-19 outbreak to complete the demolition without a hitch.
With their 5-0 win over the Angels in Sunday’s regular season finale, the Dodgers (43-17) finished with the best record in the majors by three games. They posted a dominant plus-136 run differential. They produced the best earned-run average. They scored the most runs. They slugged the most homers. They weren’t shut out once. They lost one of their 20 series. They generated a .717 win percentage — a 116-win pace in the standard 162-game season and the National League’s best clip since Honus Wagner led the 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates to a championship.
All of that will mean just about nothing if they don’t win 13 playoff games and hoist the World Series trophy for the first time in 32 years next month.
“When the season's closed out and we start the playoffs, none of it means anything and we start over and everything goes back to zero,” said outfielder AJ Pollock, who hit his 15th and 16th home runs Sunday to finish tied with Mookie Betts for the team lead. “Hopefully, me personally and hopefully the team, we can just keep this thing rolling.”
The Dodgers will enter the postseason as the heavy favorites to win the NL pennant with home-field advantage throughout the tournament, though that has a different meaning in 2020. The second sprint begins with Game 1 of the wild-card round Wednesday at 7 p.m. PDT against the No. 8 seed Milwaukee Brewers (29-31) at Dodger Stadium. The winner of the three-game series will enter a bubble in Texas to play the National League Division series at Globe Life Park.
“I thought we were very prepared the last four years,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “What's different…I think we have a deeper bullpen. Certainly adding Mookie [Betts] to the mix makes us better and I think the experience. All that stuff combined gives us an even better chance this year.”
On Sunday, the Dodgers, their playoff spot clinched almost two weeks ago, revealed their starter for the postseason opener.
Clayton Kershaw has been one of the best pitchers in the major leagues in 2020, unearthing previously lost stuff to post a 2.16 ERA in 10 starts, while Walker Buehler got off to a slow start before a blister landed him on the injured list twice. But Buehler, not Kershaw, will start Game 1 of the wild card round, Roberts announced.
“There was a lot that went into it but we just feel that puts us in the best spot in those two games and also going forward,” Roberts said. “It could've been interchanged. Honestly, it's one in the same to be quite honest.”
Roberts declined to expand on the reasons for the decision. But blisters for pitchers are unpredictable — see Rich Hill — and Buehler’s recent problem was undoubtedly a factor.
Starting Buehler in Game 1 ensures that a fresh bullpen will be available should he exit early because of performance or blister trouble. The team is more confident Kershaw will supply a long start — six or seven innings — and can rely on him to take on most of a game. This order, the Dodgers’ thinking goes, theoretically gives most of the bullpen a breather Thursday before a possible do-or-die Game 3 on Friday.
Buehler reported to summer camp behind the other starters and struggled early in the season. He didn’t complete six innings until his fifth start against the Colorado Rockies on Aug. 21, when his blister surfaced. He has since been on the injured list twice and started three times. He returned from his second stint on the injured list to log four scoreless innings in his final playoff tune-up Thursday against the Oakland Athletics. Buehler finished with a 3.44 ERA in 36 2/3 innings across eight starts.
“We just talked about it and feel really good about that direction,” Roberts said. “So, again, that decision, there's really not a lot that really needed to go into it. We talked about it, debated it, and just feel really confident both are great options.”
The Dodgers claim to not have decided on their pitching plan for Game 3. Their choices would depend on opponent and pitching usage in the first two games. The Dodgers view Tony Gonsolin as best suited to start Game 3 the old-fashioned way, but there’s a strong chance they won’t go with a conventional starter.
The club had Dustin May and Julio Urías pitch bulk innings out of the bullpen after relievers opened games for an inning or two down the stretch in preparation for the playoffs. They used the formula with May for the second time Sunday.
Victor González got the start and faced four hitters before May entered with a runner on first base in the second inning. The right-hander tossed four scoreless innings with five strikeouts. He allowed two hits and walked two.
The Dodgers were without Betts, who was still sore from getting hit by a pitch on his left hip Saturday but will be ready Wednesday. Pollock took his place as the leadoff hitter and promptly blasted his fourth career leadoff home run to give the Dodgers a quick lead against Angels left-hander Patrick Sandoval.
They added two more runs in the third inning and two more on Pollock’s second home run in the seventh. A half-inning later, Adam Kolarek, a relief pitcher, was put in the game to play right field.
The Dodgers went 6-0 against the Angels (26-34), one of the 14 clubs that failed to earn a spot in the expanded playoffs. They’ll have to beat stiffer competition in October to win the World Series. And, ultimately, that’s all that really matters.
Three takeaways from Angels vs. Dodgers
- Angels starter Patrick Sandoval was removed in the third inning because of a left calf strain. He grimaced as his back leg swung forward on his final pitch of the season.
- Justin Turner went 0 for 2 with a walk to extend his on-base streak to 30 games before his planned exit in the fifth inning. The third baseman, who was recently hampered by a hamstring strain, finished the season with a .307 batting average and .860 OPS in 43 games.
- Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said three to five spots on the wild card round roster remained undecided entering Sunday. The final decisions, he said, depended heavily on the opponent.
Times staff writer Maria Torres contributed to this report.