Behind the arms of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke and some big contributions from some unlikely hitters, the Dodgers are NL West champions once more.
The Giants put the Dodgers' plans to clinch their third straight NL West title on hold with a 12-inning win on Monday night at AT&T Park, but Clayton Kershaw finished the job on Tuesday with a vintage performance, spinning a 13-strikeout one-hitter and wearing out opposite number Madison Bumgarner with a 13-pitch plate appearance. But for as recognizable as their ace might have been, the ensemble from which he received offensive support was one that hardly could have been envisioned six months ago, even given the Dodgers' seemingly unlimited payroll—a microcosm of the team’s approach in its first year under president Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi.
First though, let's talk about Kershaw, whose performance was worth savoring. The 27-year-old southpaw was as dominant as he's been all season, yielding only a third-inning single by Kevin Frandsen and a walk to Angel Pagan two batters later. He retired the final 19 batters he faced, albeit against a Giants lineup shorn of regulars Nori Aoki, Brandon Belt, Joe Panik and Hunter Pence due to injures. Still, even the Giants' JV squad has given the Dodgers fits: Monday night's win gave the defending world champions a 10–6 season series advantage and a 7–0 record against Los Angeles in San Francisco. But by the time Kershaw dropped "Public Enemy Number One" on Jarrett Parker—the latest unlikely Giants hero, a 26-year-old rookie who had helped forestall the team's elimination with a three-homer game against the Athletics on Saturday—to end the eighth inning, the score was 8–0, the outcome hardly in doubt:
Kershaw needed just 104 pitches to throw his third shutout of the season (a career high, and tied with Jake Arrieta for the league lead). His 97 game score was a season high, his best since his June 18, 2014 no-hitter against the Rockies, and tied for the majors' seventh-best this year. Aficionados can quibble over whether Tuesday's start or his tenacious 132-pitch, 15-strikeout complete game against the Giants on Sept. 2—the one that effectively shut the door on the defending champions’ hopes of an unlikely odd-year playoff berth—was the more important performance in the context of the team's season, but both games left little doubt about the three-time Cy Young winner's ability to rise to the occasion. Kershaw may be the third wheel in the two-man NL Cy Young race between Arrieta and teammate Zack Greinke, but since the spate of "What's wrong?" articles in the spring, he's been as dominant as ever: a 1.42 ERA over his last 23 starts, with 221 strikeouts and just 26 walks in 170 2/3 innings. That’ll do.
Before Kershaw could ensure that the Dodgers could break out their long-chilling reserve of champagne, however, he had the game's pivotal plate appearance against Bumgarner. At that point, with one out in the fifth inning, the Dodgers led 2–0 thanks to Kiké Hernandez, who had singled and scored on a manufactured first-inning run, then clubbed a 430-foot solo homer in the third that suggested maybe this was not the night for last October’s hero. His pitch count at 76, San Francisco's ace wound up on the short end of the longest plate appearance by a pitcher this season:
Kershaw wound up grounding out to second base, but that encounter was the beginning of the end for Bumgarner, who had the additional misfortune of a throwing error by Brandon Crawford to put the next hitter, that pesky Hernandez, on base, then allowed a single to Howie Kendrick before he could escape trouble—an extra eight pitches to get what should have been the third out of the inning. Bumgarner got two quick outs in the sixth, but then Justin Ruggiano and A.J. Ellis hit back-to-back solo homers, forcing Bruce Bochy to give his ace the hook that ended his quest for a 20-win season.
Hernandez, Ruggiano and Ellis were just three of the team's more unlikely heroes, not only of the clinching victory but also of the ongoing effort to keep the Dodgers afloat late in the season amid a rash of injuries. Hernandez, acquired from the Marlins in the Dee Gordon trade last December, began the year in the minors but has since become invaluable, hitting 318/.357/.510 for a 139 OPS+ in 208 PA and making starts at six different positions (all three in the outfield, plus second, short and third). He spotted for Jimmy Rolllins at shortstop, filled in for the injured Howie Kendrick at second and supplanted the slumping Joc Pederson (.178/.314/.287 in 211 PA since the All-Star break) in centerfield, at least against lefties, before a hamstring injury knocked him out for a month; Monday was his first game back.
Ruggiano, a 2004 Dodgers draftee who passed through the hands of five different teams after being traded away in 2006, was reacquired on Aug. 31 and has since hit .308/.357/.654 with four homers in 56 PA, serving as a pinch-hitter and short half of a leftfield platoon with Carl Crawford. The latter is himself back in the picture with a .288/.333/.432 showing in 128 PA since returning from a 12-week absence due to a right oblique strain.
Ellis, retained after hitting .191/.323/.254 last year so that he could be Kershaw's regular battery-mate, has rebounded to hit .232/.346/.401 with seven homers and a 108 OPS+ in 211 PA overall and .271/.381/.523 since the beginning of July. That performance that has helped to offset the shoulder injury-related collapse of Yasmani Grandal, who's in a 4-for-71 slump dating back to Aug. 11; Ellis has started 15 of the team's 27 games this month. Even with Grandal’s second-half slide, the Dodgers have received a league-best .777 OPS (on a .243/.359/.418 line) from their backstops.
After Bumgarner departed, the Dodgers broke the game open with a four-run eighth inning thanks to the contributions of other players who have become increasingly important of late. Following singles by Adrian Gonzalez and Justin Turner (who early this season claimed Juan Uribe's third base job and has hit .290/.367/.483 with 15 homers and a 135 OPS+), rookie Corey Seager singled in Gonzalez. The 21-year-old Seager has hit .333/.423/.560 in 84 PA this month and supplanted Jimmy Rollins as the starting shortstop, aided by the 36-year-old veteran's career-worst performance (.225/.285/.360 and -0.2 WAR) and an injured right index finger, which has limited him to just four starts and 24 PA in the team's last 21 games. The coup de grâce was applied by Andre Ethier, who pinch-hit for Ruggiano and laced a two-run triple to run the score to 7–0, then came home on Ellis’ single. After slumping to career worsts last year (.249/.322/.370 and -0.1 WAR), Ethier has been the Dodgers' most productive regular this year (.299/.368/.491, 138 OPS+) because he's been limited to 44 PA against southpaws.
The platooning of players such as Ethier, Crawford and Pederson is a testament to the depth accumulated by the new regime of Friedman and Zaidi, who brought an increasingly analytic approach to the Dodgers from Tampa Bay and Oakland, respectively, and to the synergy between the front office and manager Don Mattingly in handling playing time issues. Thanks to that multitude of moving parts, Dodgers hitters have had the platoon advantage in 62.8% of their plate appearances, the league's second-highest rate. The Phillies (67.1) are first because they have had 418 more PA by lefty batters than any other NL team, and like all teams, they face more righthanded pitching than lefthanded. The next-highest NL team in terms of platoon advantage is the Giants at 55.9%, and eight teams are below 50. The Dodgers' .777 OPS (.254/.342/.435) under those circumstances ranks fourth in the league, but the size of that footprint is important. For example, their .342 on-base percentage while having the platoon advantage is second in the league, in 44% more PA than the Nationals, whose .353 OBP under such circumstances is tops.
Such combinations—involving multi-million dollar veterans, hot-shot rookies and unheralded role players—have helped to offset not only the aforementioned slumps but also those of Gonzalez (.239/.322/.383 since Aug. 1, and now dealing with a pinched nerve in his back) and the injury-plagued Yasiel Puig (.256/.324/.440 and limited to 77 games due to strains in both hamstrings). Which isn't to say that all of the Dodgers mixing and matching has been as effective. Having lost both Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-jin Ryu to season-ending surgeries, the team has struggled to round out its rotation behind Kershaw and Greinke, even after trading for Alex Wood and Mat Latos at the July 31 deadline. Updating the numbers I discussed on a Tuesday appearance on MLB Now, in September, the big duo has combined for a 1.93 ERA and 9.8 strikeouts per nine and averaged 7.2 innings per start. The other starters—Brett Anderson, Wood, the since-released Latos, Mike Bolsinger, Carlos Frias and Joe Wieland—have combined for a 5.79 ERA, 6.4 strikeouts per nine and just 4.9 innings per turn. The bullpen has scuffled for even longer, with a 4.41 ERA and 1.26 homers per nine in the second half, compared to a 3.56 ERA and 0.75 homers per nine in the first.
All of which suggests that every postseason inning not thrown by their pair of aces and their top two relievers, J.P. Howell and closer Kenley Jansen, has the potential to be the Dodgers' undoing this October, just as it was last year. Still, that's a problem for another day. For the moment, the work the team has done to reach the postseason for the third straight year, something that's never happened before in the 132-year history of the franchise, should be acknowledged, particularly as they've ushered out the defending champions on their home turf. They may have been overwhelming favorites to win the NL West, but as the Nationals proved with regards to the NL East, such rosy outlooks guarantee nothing. Pulling it off is the trick, and the Dodgers have done just that.