- The Dodgers smothered the Cubs in Game 3 of the NLCS to put the defending champions on the brink of elimination.
CHICAGO — The Dodgers are good because they are good. When you can add one of the top dozen pitchers in baseball and start him in Game 3, when the guy who replaces your injured all-world shortstop hits .333 in his stead, when your seventh hitter and backup catcher gets on base at a .429 clip—you are probably in good shape. They boast at least two players who will receive MVP votes, a Cy Young candidate and the presumptive Rookie of the Year. This team can’t even roster all its excellent players. But there is more to it than that. The Dodgers are also good because they know they are good.
Sports’ essential chicken-and-egg question is: Which comes first, chemistry or winning? Most of the time, the answer is winning. No number of team dinners can make up for a bad bullpen or weak hitters. And yet …
“The longer I do this, the more important I think continuity is,” says Los Angeles GM Farhan Zaidi. Once players get to know one other, he theorizes, they are more willing to sacrifice for one another. That’s part of why the front office fought so hard to bring back free agents Justin Turner at third base, Kenley Jansen at closer and Rich Hill in the rotation. This would be the second year for manager Dave Roberts and his staff, and the team had come within two wins of reaching the World Series in 2016. They believed they had the right combination; another year together might be all they needed. Twenty-one of the 25 players on that NLCS roster returned this season.
Turner noticed as early as spring training: Everyone seemed to have bought in. There was almost none of the usual griping about playing time or favoritism or locker placement. Huh, he thought. As the season progressed, he grew more certain. Roberts is a modern manager, data-driven and fascinated by the endless information at his fingertips. Some players had been hesitant in 2016 to incorporate all the minutiae into a game that is already complicated. But once it became clear that the new methods gave them the outcome they wanted, they warmed to the help. Success begat success. What temporary discomfort wouldn’t you accept if you knew it would work out?
That has been especially true this postseason. Thee Dodgers are still awaiting their first loss after sweeping the Diamondbacks in the NLDS and taking a 3–0 lead over the Cubs in the next round after their 6–1 win on Tuesday night. Seemingly everyone on the roster has contributed a crucial hit or gotten a key out. The bullpen—the team’s weakest spot a year ago—finally gave up its first hit of the NLCS on Tuesday. The 0–29 streak that single snapped was the longest to begin a postseason series in major league history.
If it seems like Roberts is pushing all the right buttons, well, that’s because there seem to be no wrong ones for this team. On Tuesday he shuffled his lineup, sitting super-utilityman and recent leftfielder Enrique Hernández in favor of 35-year-old Andre Ethier, who hadn’t started a game since September. Ethier lined the second pitch he saw into the rightfield stands to tie the game at 1. Roberts also started centerfielder Joc Pederson, who struggled so mightily this summer that he was demoted to Triple A in August with instructions to get his swing back. Pederson doubled and scored the go-ahead run.
With the top of the order awaiting for the third time in the sixth, Roberts let starter Yu Darvish bat with the bases loaded and two out. Darvish faked bunt, then walked on four pitches to drive in a run. He got four more outs on 12 pitches before passing the baton.
Roberts had hoped to avoid using Jansen, who has appeared in every game of the postseason, but once two hitters reached in the ninth, the manager summoned his stopper. Never mind that the score was 6–1. Two nights after Cubs skipper Joe Maddon refused to call on his own closer in a tie game on the road, Jansen retired the side on 12 pitches.
The Dodgers’ favorite cliché this season has been, “It feels like it’s a different guy every night.” Turner, who hit a three-run walk-off home run to win Game 2, fully expected centerfielder Chris Taylor, batting ahead of him, to end the game; when he instead worked a walk, Turner did the honors. Their belief that any of them can provide that moment has allowed them to relax—and in many cases, do it themselves.
Ace Clayton Kershaw is famously reluctant to come out of games, but with the relief corps he now has behind him, he can worry less about pacing himself. Rightfielder and delightful team mascot Yasiel Puig has had his best season since his revelation of a rookie year; he says he can play freely now that he feels less pressure to be a superstar.
The commitment has extended to even the most uncomfortable of sports situations: life as a role player. Everyone wants to be the star, but you won’t hear many complaints about being the backup infielder for a World Series contender. Part of the Dodgers’ success this season can be attributed to its unparalleled depth. Bench bats Chase Utley and Curtis Granderson have nine All-Star selections between them; the two pitchers who didn’t make the playoff rotation—Kenta Maeda and Hyun-Jin Ryu—could have started for nearly any other team. But Los Angeles can offer an opportunity few others can match, and in turn they have embraced their jobs.
“You don’t know how many opportunities you’re going to get to play this game and be on a team that can win and be successful,” says Ethier. Once a top-flight player in his own right, he is now relegated largely to pinch-hitting and the occasional start. That’s fine with him. He has told Roberts that he just wants to be a part of what the Dodgers are doing. He doesn’t care how.