Another Season Ends in Devastating Fashion for the Dodgers

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw hangs his head in the dugout after giving up two home runs in the top of the eight inning in Game 5 of the NLDS. Photo: Hans Gutknecht/Zuma Press

The Los Angeles Dodgers spent roughly $1.7 billion in payroll over the past seven years in pursuit of a title, an unprecedented level of financial commitment for one of baseball’s marquee teams. Their commitment to winning has resulted in more regular-season victories than any of their competitors, MLB-leading attendance figures, seven consecutive division crowns and a pair of National League pennants over that span.

But one critical accomplishment remains elusive: winning the World Series. Without that, all of their investment and accomplishment would be judged a failure.

By that standard, the Dodgers failed in 2019. They failed in disastrous fashion. They failed in such a shocking and abrupt way that it will likely come with massive ramifications for the organization. The Dodgers lost in the division series to the Washington Nationals on Wednesday night, a devastating—or thrilling, depending on your perspective—7-3 10-inning defeat in the decisive Game 5 of the division series.

The Dodgers didn’t just fail to win the World Series. They failed even to advance to the National League Championship Series.

“Disappointing,” manager Dave Roberts said, “is probably an understatement.

For the first time since 2015, the NLCS will take place without the Dodgers. Instead, it will feature the Nationals, a club certainly accustomed to its own embarrassing early postseason exits.

They bowed out in the NLDS four times from 2012 through 2017, three of which in the maximum five games. Now, improbably, they will travel to St. Louis to face the Cardinals, with a trip to the World Series on the line. Their elite pitching rotation, led by Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, makes them legitimate championship contenders.

“We’ve been aiming for that since 2012,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We haven’t reached our goals yet, but we’re going to keep fighting and battling until we do.”

As the Nationals celebrated on the Dodger Stadium field, the Dodgers could do nothing but watch from the dugout in stunned silence. They carried a 3-1 lead into the eighth inning, with Walker Buehler out-dueling Strasburg to that point. Roberts, despite a full bullpen at his disposal, decided to turn to Clayton Kershaw, the future Hall-of-Famer whose playoff demons continue to tarnish an otherwise brilliant legacy.

Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle jumps into the arms of catcher Yan Gomes after the final out of Game 5. Photo: Hans Gutknecht/Zuma Press

Kershaw, who lost Game 2 of this series, entered the contest with two outs in the seventh in place of Buehler and struck out Adam Eaton with two runners on base. From there, with the heart of Washington’s order due up, Roberts could’ve gone with a traditional reliever, like Kenta Maeda or Joe Kelly.

He chose to stay with Kershaw, who promptly surrendered back-to-back home runs to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto, the latter of which traveled 449 feet. The legendary Clayton Kershaw walked off the mound to boos from the hometown crowd of 54,159, his inexplicable postseason issues dooming him once again. Kershaw’s career postseason ERA ballooned to 4.43 versus 2.44 in the regular season. Fairly or not, his reputation as a choker might never recover.

Afterward, an emotional Kershaw told reporters, “Everything people say is true right now about the postseason.”

Two innings later, with closer Kenley Jansen still available, Kelly allowed a grand slam to veteran infielder Howie Kendrick, sealing the Dodgers’ fate.

“I let down the guys in the clubhouse,” Kershaw said. “That’s the hardest part every year. When you don’t win the last game of the season and you’re to blame for it, it’s not fun.”

The Dodgers’ loss acts as a powerful reminder of the unpredictability of the playoffs, the monthlong sprint in which logic gives way to randomness and chaos reigns. Unlike in other sports, where talent usually conquers all, the word “upset” hardly ever applies in baseball.

Still, a juggernaut like the Dodgers succumbing in the first round sent a shock wave across the industry. Teams like the Dodgers, who won a franchise record 106 games in 2019, rarely lose this quickly. Since the introduction of the wild card in 1995 through 2018, six teams finished the regular season with 104 wins or more. All of them survived the division series. (The Houston Astros would join the Dodgers in ignominy if they lose to the Tampa Bay Rays in their Game 5 on Thursday night.)

As the Dodgers fade into a winter of reckoning, they must deal with this reality. Only two teams in history have put together postseason appearance streaks longer than the Dodgers’ current run of seven: the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees of the 1990s and 2000s. Unlike the Dodgers, both of those organizations took home rings. The Yankees won four championships in five years from 1996 through 2000. The Braves managed only one title, in 1995—a disappointment, but still one more than these Dodgers, who last won the World Series in 1988.

Maybe the Dodgers will still claim their long-awaited prize eventually, but they could look different in 2020. Nearly all of Roberts’s major decisions backfired Wednesday. It might cost him his job. At the same time, it seems difficult to improve the Dodgers. Every year, they establish themselves as arguably the best team in baseball. Every year, they lose too soon.

In 2019, they lost sooner than anybody imagined.

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Write to Jared Diamond at [email protected]

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