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As Dodgers, Yankees lay waste to opponents, dreams of a super team World Series gain focus

LOS ANGELES – Venerable yet still shiny Dodger Stadium enjoyed its moment in the unrelenting sun this week, hosting its first All-Star Game since 1980. One year after that game, the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers met in the 1981 World Series, a bi-coastal matchup that’s the stuff of big-market fan and TV executive dreams.

It hasn’t happened since.

That fact seems staggering enough given that the Dodgers and Yankees have both qualified for the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons and 10 of the past 18 and are almost always blessed by massive payrolls and star performers. Blame the beguiling and always random playoff system if you must; you might not be wrong.

Yet as Major League Baseball embarks on the second half of its season, there is significant reason to believe these Dodgers and Yankees may follow in the All-Star Game’s footsteps and run back a baseball spectacle not seen since the 1980s.

Apologies to the Houston Astros, who have advanced to five consecutive American League Championship Series, are playing .649 ball and, ahead of a Thursday doubleheader against the Yankees to kick off the second half, have won three of five from the Bronx Bombers.

Yet only the Yankees have outscored their opponents by a staggering 199 runs and posted a .696 winning percentage, a 113-win pace in a division where all five teams have .500 or better records. No MLB club has won 70% of its games since the 2001 Seattle Mariners.

And in the National League, the Dodgers can flex a .667 winning percentage, a +169 run differential (nobody else is in triple digits) and a 10-game NL West lead that looks nearly as secure as the Yankees’ 13-game AL East advantage.

They’ll all tell you that anything can happen in the second half, that there will be speed bumps and there is, in fact, a long way to go. But both squads are laying waste to opponents in a way that suggests expectations have been met, or exceeded, by reality.

And those always-outsize expectations may finally be met.

“We are equipped,” says Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner, “and we are focused.

“We know that we’re a difficult team to face for many reasons. For the most part, we know that we can beat anybody. We know we’re good and we expect a lot out of ourselves.”

The refrain is similar in the Bronx, where, like the Dodgers, the Yankees will pay north of $250 million in payroll and closer to $275 million for luxury tax purposes, a rent district where only the nouveau riche Mets also reside.

But sports in general and baseball perhaps most specifically is littered with the carcasses of big-money clubs that underperformed or never came together or, with a trophy on the line, did not receive a favorable hop.

The Dodgers and Yankees needn’t worry about the former; there’s reason to believe their current rosters may yet overcome the latter.

Dodgers closer Craig Kimbrel shakes hands with catcher Will Smith after the win over the Cincinnati Reds.
Dodgers closer Craig Kimbrel shakes hands with catcher Will Smith after the win over the Cincinnati Reds.

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'Nothing gets overlooked'

In L.A., the phrase “Four future Hall of Famers” comes with a bitter taste, an ode to the 2004 Los Angeles Lakers that were expected to cruise to an NBA title behind Shaq and Kobe and newcomers Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Instead, they were embarrassed in a five-game NBA Finals by Detroit and were blown up shortly after.

This year, with the signing of first baseman Freddie Freeman to a $162 million contract, their baseball brethren are taking a similar tack: Four recent MVPs.

Freeman joining Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger at Chavez Ravine sounds, on paper, like a wild-eyed baseball plan bound to go awry. But these are the modern Dodgers, a franchise now equally adept at wisely flexing financial muscle as it is finding marginal gains in the most unlikely spots.

Freeman is just fine: He’s second in both batting average (.321) and OPS (.927) in the NL. And after an extended emotional departure from the Atlanta Braves, he says he’s fully settled as a Dodger, calling the squad a “special group of people” and that he’s “so happy to be here.”

Here’s one thing to which he’s still not accustomed: The endless wealth of talent the club surfaces.

The Dodgers lost almost an entire bullpen (Daniel Hudson, Blake Treinen, Brusdar Graterol, Tommy Kahnle) to injury, won’t welcome ace Walker Buehler back until a four-month injury absence concludes in September and lost Clayton Kershaw for a month.

And?

“The depth has surprised me,” says Freeman of his Dodgers indoctrination. “When you think of all the injuries we’ve had, just to our bullpen, we’ve lost so many guys and now you think about Blake starting to come back, Dustin May is coming back, we lost Walker Buehler, we lost Clayton for a little bit. We’ve had so many doors open and guys are shuffling through.

“That’s just a testament to Andrew and Brandon Gomes and all the guys in the front office.”

Andrew would be baseball operations president Andrew Friedman, who has concocted a diabolical player development apparatus helmed by Gomes that gets its claws into different talent every year and spits out an All-Star – or two.

This year, it’s starting pitchers Tony Gonsolin and Tyler Anderson, the latter a 32-year-old who’s never posted better than a 4.35 ERA in pit stops with four franchises.

With the Dodgers? He’s sporting a 2.96 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP and two cardboard boxes worth of paraphernalia from his first All-Star Game appearance this week.

The Dodgers, more than a little paranoid about the secrecy of their methods, seem to take attention to detail to newer heights every year. Anderson is merely ambling down the same path paved by All-Star position players like Max Muncy and Chris Taylor.

“They do a really job of not missing anything,” says Anderson, who posted a 4.53 ERA with Pittsburgh and Seattle in 2021. “They get every detail. Nothing gets overlooked. They have so many guys who are so good at what they do. They’re really good at seeing things other people might miss.

“Because they don’t overlook anything.”

That’s a helpful trait when injuries force them to lean on a second-shift bullpen in which closer Craig Kimbrel remains unpredictable, yet former Orioles and Rays castoff Evan Phillips has become a steadying force (1.50 ERA, 0.77 WHIP) and former Rockie Yency Almonte has a 1.40 ERA in 25 innings.

Enough hands have been forced on deck that the $261 million Dodger roster can talk about adversity with something resembling a straight face.

“I think we’d all want a smooth road to 60-30. But it’s a great start,” says Freeman. “Sixty wins in the first half is a great start. No one wants to see your teammates and friends get hurt. But to be where they are, that’s huge for us.

“To go through those little tests as a unit and get through them, that’s what makes a special team.”

In New York, the tests have been different, but the outcome the same.

Clean it up

When owner Hal Steinbrenner opted not to sign a $300 million shortstop this off-season, he was derided as cheap. When club president Brian Cashman opted to acquire steady but unspectacular shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, trade catcher Gary Sanchez and turn the position over to Alex Trevino and Kyle Higashioka, the message in the clubhouse was different:

Clean it up.

A maddeningly inconsistent 92-win 2021 season ended with an ignominious wild card loss to the Red Sox at Fenway Park. The first half of 2022 ended with two wins over those Red Sox – by a combined score of 27-3.

What transpired between those results is everything to the Yankees.

“You gotta play clean ball in this league,” says ace Gerrit Cole, an All-Star again after he was chased off the Fenway Park mound to end the Yankee season in 2021. “You gotta make sure your baserunning is on point. Attention to detail. Bags. First to thirds. And know that offenses and other pitching staffs are going to adjust to how we had our success.”

Aaron Judge’s MVP-caliber season has been a huge boost, along with good health from fellow slugger Giancarlo Stanton and a bullpen in which All-Star Clay Holmes and deluxe set-up man Michael King make the late innings dissipate quickly.

And the goings-on behind closed doors can’t be overlooked.

Beyond Cole’s attention-to-detail depiction, the presence of a healthy and productive Anthony Rizzo has helped tip the scales. Acquired in August for the stretch drive, Rizzo, unvaccinated at the time, was felled by a bad case of COVID-19 and the runway to assert his power and personality was limited.

In 2022, he’s already slammed 22 home runs and, in the clubhouse, toggles between tenacity and a shrug-it-off looseness imperative in a 162-game season.

“The first thing that comes to mind is Anthony Rizzo,” says lefty starter Nestor Cortes. “Anthony Rizzo, World Series champ, he knows what it takes. I remember him telling us, championship teams respond the next inning. If we allow two or three runs, next inning out, we’re scoring at least one. He said when (the Chicago Cubs) won in ’16, this was the type of team we were.

“He keeps us trending up and if we lose one, puts the music on in the clubhouse and says, we’ll get them tomorrow.”

They’ve all but snuffed out the hopes of their rivals. FanGraphs computations say the Yankees have a 98.5% chance of winning the AL East. The indignity of a best-of-three wild card series can be avoided and the new, expanded playoff format should benefit the Dodgers and Yankees, who are all but assured of first-round byes.

And with one division winner subjected to an additional series, it’s likelier a potential spoiler is instead upended before it can upset the best-laid plans of these big-market behemoths.

'You have to be at your best'

Both can be subjected to a nature vs. nurture argument - nature, in this case, being the franchises’ guaranteed spots atop the revenue and payroll hierarchy.

Is it merely money? Or is it that nebulous “culture” that franchises seek, but often struggle to concoct?

“Expectations and standards are high,” says Holmes, a Pittsburgh Pirate until a July 2021 trade to the Yankees. “It makes some people better and others, it can trip them up a bit. But it’s definitely an organization that expects to win, a fan base that expects to win.

“You have to be at your best. We have a group of guys that believe that and want to get there.”

Cole says the Yankees are “going to take some punches” in the second half as teams adjust to what made them so great to this point, but he doubts complacency will be a factor. He giddily urged the news media to keep Juan Soto trade rumors “on the front page,” and while the Dodgers and Yankees might lack the prospect punch to land the superstar hitter, both squads will spare little expense for trade deadline reinforcements.

Last year, that was Turner, who arrived from Washington with ace Max Scherzer and says he was quickly schooled in expectations. The Dodgers would win 106 games but lose the division by a game to the Giants, a significant factor in their eventual six-game NLCS loss to the Braves.

That shouldn't be a problem this year. And perhaps, after a 41-year hiatus, two squads with annual October expectations will finally size each other up at the end of one.

“They have a high standard over here and I learned that real quick,” says Turner. “When you go to the World Series that many times, it starts to become a standard. Coming over here, I knew it’d be that way. And it is.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dodgers-Yankees: A super team World Series is within reach