Five are fighting: National League up for grabs on final day of season

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

SAN FRANCISCO – So, how does one celebrate second place?

With goggles, new caps and T-shirts, a bunch of beer, a little whimsy and this, a warning from Matt Kemp: “Don’t drink it! We got [stuff] to do tomorrow!”

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With a strategy, probably, to pitch one guy – Rich Hill – if the standings look a certain way Sunday morning and another – Walker Buehler – if they look different.

With a weary perspective that the first 161 games didn’t go exactly as planned, but they weren’t catastrophic either, not yet, that in is in, that baseball demands you honor anything that looks even a little like achievement because there’s a lot less of that than there is catastrophe.

With a long, heavy hug for your son, Cole, which is what manager Dave Roberts reached for in the final days of the guaranteed portion of his contract, not an hour after the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the San Francisco Giants, an outcome that eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals and clinched for the Dodgers a wild-card game at the least.

With a mound of food on a paper plate and a beer saved from the earlier fracas, with the television tuned to the baseball game in Denver, the one that would determine whether you would wake up on the season’s last Sunday tied for first place or still in second.

Yasiel Puig celebrates clinching a playoff spot after beating the San Francisco Giants on Saturday. (AP)
Yasiel Puig celebrates clinching a playoff spot after beating the San Francisco Giants on Saturday. (AP)

And, finally, with a little patience. A few hours later, they were, indeed, tied for first place, which is not such an exclusive claim. Today, there are five first-place teams in the National League alone. The playoffs start Tuesday.

“Thank you,” Kenta Maeda shouted to no one in particular. “I love you!”

Tradition says entry into October comes with a touch of silliness, with half an hour when you can unset your jaw and relax your shoulders and end up with eye-black streaming down your cheeks, thankful that the season never came completely apart. Because seasons come completely apart all the time, which is why, for example, the Washington Nationals played Saturday evening at Coors Field just for the sport of it, while the Colorado Rockies played for the first NL West title of their history and October’s easier path. The Rockies lost for the first time in 10 days.

(Rockies starter Jon Gray, who allowed seven hits and four runs in 1 1/3 innings in last October’s wild-card game, allowed seven hits and five runs in two innings to the Nationals on Saturday night.)

In all this, Saturday at AT&T Park was, and Sunday at AT&T Park will be, similar to games across the National League. In the final hours of the regular season, there are five for-sure postseason teams for five places (and they were all in first place). There also is no NL West winner, no NL Central winner, and no wild-card teams, and a possibility for two Games 163, one between the Rockies and Dodgers and the other between the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers.

Fifteen games are scheduled to start Sunday afternoon, among them Dodgers at Giants, Detroit Tigers at Brewers, Nationals at Rockies, Cardinals at Cubs and Atlanta Braves (the NL East winners, with 90 wins) at Philadelphia Phillies. That’s the [stuff] Matt Kemp was talking about, about baseball games that begin to feel important, about playing 99.4 percent of 162 games and still not being sure where one stands, about October and punchers’ chances and why-not-us and crazy stuff happens so you might as well show up.

At the end of a blue-ish day – a blue-ish sky, blue-ish bleachers (AT&T Park was overrun from the south), blue-ish retorts (Giants fans were not happy) – the Dodgers, in gray and blue, snaked from their dugout to second base. They’d won their 90th game. They’d play beyond Sunday and beyond Monday, if Monday is necessary. They scored 10 runs, gave up six, and smiled, as they’d decided long ago to take the wins when they came, to stop fretting about the hows of them, because this season was different from the last in about every way.

“It wasn’t easy to win our way into this,” Roberts said. “[But] we found a way to the other side. I think there’s power in that.”

Then, how does one dress up an ace having to hit himself out of a lukewarm start — OK it wasn’t even as good as that — this against what some might call the worst offense in the game, what others would call a run-scoring tragedy on wheels?

Clayton Kershaw allowed five runs in five innings on Saturday. It could be his final start for the Dodgers. (Getty Images)
Clayton Kershaw allowed five runs in five innings on Saturday. It could be his final start for the Dodgers. (Getty Images)

However the coming hours, days, weeks set up for the Dodgers, who are they if not lined up behind Clayton Kershaw? He is what they are. The best of who they are. The Giants jumped him for five runs in five innings, “jumped him” because a majority of their hits were early in counts, often against Kershaw’s fastball.

Stuff changes. Humans are fragile, human arms even more so, and the reason you play is because you never really know what will happen. The Dodgers have won his last eight starts, and he’s been better than fine, and he said afterward he felt better than fine, and every once in a while you walk into a place you own and give up more than a couple runs. That’s twice for Kershaw at AT&T Park. In 22 career starts. It also, potentially, was his final start for the Dodgers.

“What you do know, though, every time Clayton takes the baseball he’s going to be as prepared as anyone and going to compete as well as anyone,” Roberts said.

Showered, dressed and pleased with the day’s result (he did contribute a two-run single) if not his role in it entirely, Kershaw passed his hand through his hair and said, “This season felt really fast, even faster than years before. And maybe because we’re still playing for something all the way through, it doesn’t feel like it’s an ending.”

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