The Dodgers Are in Purgatory

Within the first Dodgers-Cubs game of Tuesday’s doubleheader was one of the worst-executed plays at the plate that I’ve ever seen in a major-league game.

Let’s not even get into the fact that it was the bottom of the third and Clayton Kershaw had given up four runs in the first inning — after which he left the game, in the shortest start of his career. Here, Kyle Hendricks was up to the plate. Not a pitcher known for his slugging capabilities. There were two out, and Dennis Santana was in an ideal position to strand the two baserunners he had allowed.

Instead, he spiked a pitch in front of home plate. It careened off Will Smith’s shin pad, off into oblivion. Another run came scampering home, and as it did, Smith attempted to throw Santana the ball to make a tag. He did this as he was falling backward, twisting on one leg, and it bounced in the dirt in front of Santana, who was not at all ready to make a play at home. It caromed off his leg, over toward the backstop. Santana tried to avoid the obstacle of the runner, but by the time he got to the ball, the second runner had already scored, and there was nobody there to make an attempt at tagging him out.

A wild pitch, with two out and the pitcher at the plate, and two baserunners had scored. They weren’t the defining runs of the game — the Dodgers only ended up scoring one. But they did encapsulate the style of play that has led the Dodgers, undeniably one of baseball’s best teams, to a position of desperation for even one win. The Dodgers, for the past two weeks, have been playing purgatorial baseball: repeating the same losing patterns, stuck in the same place, the only redemption being to wait.

***

Do you remember September 2017? It seems like a long, long time ago, but then, as now, the Dodgers were favorites to make the World Series. When the month began, they were 91-41 — over 10 games better than any other team in baseball. Sports Illustrated ran a cover in August, a statement wearing a question’s hat: “Best. Team. Ever?” And at the center of it was Justin Turner, an orange man drenched in a victory bath of orange Gatorade.

The 2017 Dodgers did not end up being the best team ever. That September, they lost over half of their games. They were still an incredible team, of course, the winners of 104 — hardly limping into the postseason. And they pushed all the way through to Game 7 against a trash-can-assisted Astros lineup. But the month that preceded the postseason, when they were assured of a playoff spot, was a dreary slog to watch. With only two off-days, every morning brought a new sense of dread. From September 1 until their first off-day on September 14, the 2017 Dodgers went 3-14, with two of their three wins coming in the final two games of that stretch. During their 11-game losing streak, they scored one run or fewer five times. They lost three games by one run, and three games by two runs. They were also blown out three times: 13-0 by the Diamondbacks, 9-1 and 8-1 by the Rockies.

Losing streaks on teams that have obvious, consistent weaknesses of construction are fairly explicable. Frustrating, sure, but at least one can point directly to a cause, a flaw woven into the fabric. When teams that are demonstrably excellent nosedive, it can seem as though they are actively finding ways to lose. One day, a pitcher who has been good all season will be blown out. When the pitching is good, the lineup gives them nothing to back them up. Routine plays are bungled; the bullpen promptly returns any runs that are scored. And the games, weighed down by incompetence, take forever: the time wasted of bases being filled and then left that way, extra innings that lead nowhere, the opposing team piling on run after run, counts worked full before swings-and-misses empty them.

A few weeks ago, the “Best. Team. Ever?” aura was hovering around the Dodgers again. They were 13-3 after their first series against the Padres ended on April 18, a historic hot start for a team coming off a World Series championship. Outside of their first starts, the Cy Young winners of their rotation, Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Bauer, were pitching like Cy Young winners. Dustin May was advancing to a new level. Kenley Jansen was hitting 97, and the entire lineup seemed to be running an OPS over .900. At the center of it all, again, was Turner, newly re-signed after last offseason.

But the week after that saw them stumble a bit. They struggled to score runs against the Mariners and in their first two games against the Padres again, this time at home; the effects of a major string of injuries began to show. But on Sunday night, the World Series champions looked the part. May was pitching the game of his career: ten strikeouts through six, a lone run on a Fernando Tatis Jr. homer, only two baserunners besides that. In the bottom of the sixth, their bats — so hot to start the season, ice-cold for the past week or so — looked alive again. They poured five runs on the Padres bullpen, extending a narrow 2-1 lead to a nearly-unassailable 7-1. Two more runs scored in the top of the eighth; a two-out triple in the bottom half of the inning amounted to nothing. The lead was no longer a wide, late lead: it was a narrow one, eminently assailable by the team that had last year’s best offense. It didn’t take long at all before the game was tied.

To experience such a collapse reframes everything that came before it. The Dodgers left the bases loaded in the third, the fourth, and the fifth. When they were winning by six runs, scratching another run across there would have seemed like window dressing. Now, it was unforgivable. Again, the Dodgers loaded the bases in the 10th; with no one left on the bench, Clayton Kershaw pinch-hit. He struck out. DJ Peters, the rookie, struck out, too, utterly overmatched on any heat in the top of the zone. To the top of the 11th, the game well into its fourth hour, and the Padres scratched across a single run on a sac fly. It stood as the Dodgers faded away in the bottom of the 11th. The final score: 8-7, the game just a minute shy of five hours long.

Since that game, the Dodgers are 2-8. From being the best team in baseball over the first two weeks of the season, they have been among the worst in the last. Their two wins during this stretch were both blowouts — 8-0 against the Reds; 15-4 against the Brewers — but the losses have been excruciatingly close. Most often, it has been the bullpen that has allowed the deciding runs. Dustin May is lost to Tommy John. David Price is injured. Brusdar Graterol is injured. Corey Knebel is gone long-term; Cody Bellinger’s fractured bone is still healing. Tony Gonsolin hasn’t even pitched yet. And in the absence of so many key players, there has been no rallying of the troops. There is only the obvious absence, and, as the losing continues, even more obvious malaise.

***

The Dodgers lost again on Wednesday night — again in extra innings, again after two leads were lost, and again after taking the lead twice in extras. The new innovation on losing was another play at the plate, this time with a Justin Turner attempt at scoring from first overturned. The winning run for the Cubs scored with two out in the bottom of the 11th. If nothing else, these kinds of losses are novel. The outcome, though, for a team mired in a losing streak, is the same. Four-and-a-half more hours spent spinning wheels to stay in the same place. They are frustrated, they say; they know they are better than this. We just saw it, just two weeks ago. The 2018 Dodgers, who won the pennant, were 10 games under .500 on May 16. It only remains to wait for that team, the team that still exists within this impossibly bad one, to return again: to wait, even as the hours seem to tumble onward into nothing.





RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

newest oldest most voted
Samuel
Member
Samuel

Absolute heat with this article RJ. Nice.

jrogers
Member
Member
jrogers

RJ has become one of my favorite writers at this site, already.

Jason B
Member
Member
Jason B

Just another guy throwing 100 these days… 😀

res
Member
res

He alone may increase the comments from an average of 13 to 22. All the while this desperate site continues to beg for funds as its influence continues to wane. I for one come here to giggle at its demise.

smokedowndress
Member
smokedowndress

That was a very weird comment, res.

mdangelo222
Member
Member
mdangelo222

What the hell is wrong with you?

Mean Mr. Mustard
Member
Mean Mr. Mustard

Congratulations on being a poisonous human being. I hope you don’t spawn.