LOS ANGELES — Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to Opening Day at historic Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. Let’s get ready for Dodger baseball!
For 29 teams, the season begins in late March. For the Dodgers, it’s the first pitch of Game 1 of the NLDS. On Thursday, the man who delivered that fastball was righty Walker Buehler, who led L.A. to a smooth 6–0 victory over the Nationals.
Nothing the Dodgers have done to this point matters if they don’t win the World Series. We said that in 2017, when they won 104 games and lost in seven games to the Astros. We said it in ’18, when they won 92 and lost in five to the Red Sox. We say it so often that when a reporter broached the topic with manager Dave Roberts on the eve of Game 1, the skipper smiled. “I knew that one was coming,” he said.
The season won’t be a failure if it ends without a ring, Roberts said cautiously. “But,” he added, “Our only goal is to win a championship.”
Just ask Game 2 starter Clayton Kershaw, who doesn’t even know how long his career has stretched but needs no help to recall his playoff tenure.
“It's a special thing to get to go to the postseason seven years in a row and nine years out of—however many years I played,” he said before Game 1. “I realize that you don't get this opportunity very often, to try to win 11 games. So, [I’m] grateful, but also maybe with each passing year, maybe a little bit more sense of urgency.”
The early rounds of the playoffs mean so little to the Dodgers that they handed out Cody Bellinger bobbleheads to the first 40,000 fans through the gates. What is this, a Monday in August? The usual postseason national anthem singer, Keith Williams Jr., did not appear; instead Charles Jones performed. Players noted that the flag seemed smaller than usual. There was no flyover.
This is the burden of playing for the perennial runners-up. It’s been 31 years since the Dodgers last won the World Series, which is almost as far away as the playoffs feel on the first day of spring training. We have to do this again?
Roberts acknowledges the difficulty in motivating players when the season seems its most interminable. “When you're sitting in July and you're thinking about trying to win a World Series,” he says, “It makes July and August and September—you get disinterested.” He tries to preach consistency: Win this game.
The Dodgers have done that very well. According to FanGraphs, the last time L.A. had less than a 99% chance of making the playoffs was May 18. The team last relinquished first place in the division on April 11. It finished 106–56, 50 games above .500 and 21 games ahead of second-place Arizona. In lieu of a real opponent, Dodgers players had to find motivation from within the organization.
Stage fright for the rook? Nah. pic.twitter.com/5DhnX0pjJM
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) October 4, 2019
Even after the halfhearted bobblehead distribution and pregame ceremony, Thursday felt like an extension of the regular season. Buehler sparkled for six inning, baffling hitters with his slider and sending them back to the dugout with his four-seamer. Three relievers combined to hold Washington to one hit. Second baseman Max Muncy, 18 months after the A’s released him, drove in three runs. The Dodgers padded their lead with a pair of eighth-inning home runs, including a pinch-hit shot by 21-year-old rookie infielder Gavin Lux, in his first postseason plate appearance. Los Angeles displayed, as usual, why it is the favorite to win the pennant, the favorite to have a third straight shot at glory.
Still, the mood after the game was subdued. The players showered. They ate dinner. They headed home. Game 2 of the NLDS was due to start in 21 hours. Game 1 of the World Series was due to start in 19 days.