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It was past midnight, into Friday morning. The Los Angeles Dodgers were a long way from home and had no plans to return anytime soon. They’d put away the young and hungry San Diego Padres, a task that might not be so clean next time. That’s a good team, and a worry for another day.
Like they had in so many recent falls, the Dodgers had found a way to the end of another season, through another postseason series or two, while reminding themselves that these are the familiar if repetitive challenges. They haven’t mastered them all, or not in a very long time, for some not in their lifetimes even. And so the Dodgers came to the National League Championship Series as they recently have — aware of what lies ahead, aware they have not been up to all of them, certain that this year can be different.
They’d explain ahead of their series with the Atlanta Braves — it starts Monday at Globe Life Field — that this is their best team of them all and that 71 postseason games across seven-plus postseasons have toughened them for this step and the next. Nothing thus far — not the regular season, not two postseason rounds that have passed without a loss, not what they believe they have coming to them — would convince them that this, right here, 2020, for all its hardships, for all its drama, is not theirs to take.
That, too, is familiar. And somewhat repetitive. And has, for seven years running, ended unhappily.
For all the Dodgers have finished since they started winning National League West titles again and for all they have left undone after that, what resonates is that they put themselves back in the place where they will win or lose again. In that place, they have only, or ultimately, lost. Of those 71 postseason games since 2013, when their run of eight division titles began, they have won 38, which means they have lost 33, and always, for seven falls running, the last one.
That is their disappointment. Perhaps, given yet another run at it, it also is their strength. That, and what the statistics would tell them was the best offense in the National League, the best pitching staff in the National League and the most wins in the National League. Their manager, Dave Roberts, acknowledged that in his five seasons with the club, two of those seasons ending in the World Series, this team is the most capable, and for a very particular reason.
“It is,” he said. “I think that we’ve obviously had a lot of talent here over the years that I’ve been here. But I just think that in the first two series you saw what we’re capable of as far as controlling the strike zone. And I think if you look back at postseasons in the past we haven’t done that very well. So, it’s just a credit to the hitting guys and the players for understanding that value.”
They finished the Padres on Thursday night by a score of 12-3. Though they’d led all of baseball in home runs over a two-month regular season, the Dodgers hit one home run in the series and two across five postseason games. Still they scored 23 runs in three games against the Padres. Will Smith, their 25-year-old catcher, had five hits Thursday night. The Padres had six. Mookie Betts hit .429 against the Milwaukee Brewers in the wild-card round and .333 against the Padres. Cody Bellinger, the 2019 NL MVP who also was a career .178 postseason hitter, batted .333 in the two series. Corey Seager hit .364 against the Padres.
In the playoffs, the Dodgers have walked 25 times and struck out 27 times, a decent habit to get into as the NLCS dawned. The Braves had pitched four shutouts in five postseason games. They threw four shutouts in the entire regular season.
Globe Life Field played big. The Dodgers went small. They sorted out a bullpen before it cost them a game, though just barely. They, in the end, were better, again.
“We did what we wanted to do,” said A.J. Pollock, who hit .300 in the series. “We did what we were supposed to do. And obviously we’re going to celebrate that. But we expected it.”
The Padres would have to console themselves with the fact they were within three games, all in the division series, of the Dodgers. Or within nine, if they wanted to count the regular season, which was only those 60 games long, so maybe that’s more like within 19 games, prorated, of the Dodgers. The numbers probably aren’t important. The point being, after a decade spent with less than fleeting hope in the NL West, the Padres had spent three nights in October on the same field as the Dodgers.
They’d say it was not good enough. They’d insist they are grown up and fully expected to beat the Dodgers at Globe Life Field and play their first NLCS in 22 years and then win their first World Series ever.
They should think that, too. They were perhaps as close as an elbow (Mike Clevinger’s) and a biceps (Dinelson Lamet’s) from making all of it — or more of it — come true.
Instead, they’ll start over one day next spring. It’s how the game works, almost always. Nobody recently knows better than the Dodgers, who, after midnight, smiled and waved at their families, wriggled into official NLCS T-shirts, posed for a team photo and then got on with the familiar if repetitive nature of this time of year. They can’t be sure of how it will go. They only can be sure they are there. Again.
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