LOS ANGELES – Baseball, by its nature, requires us to first consider all that can go wrong. So, we guard the lines and back up a few steps and plead to the big part of the ballpark and if none of that works we blame the crooked umpire and the dumb front office and the slack-jaw on the top step.
(When I was a boy I became convinced my favorite team could not lose if I watched its games through the red mesh of my old Little League cap. We were H & H Paint, which wasn’t as bad as Rosedale Garage, which my best friend played for, and the rest of us would chant, “Rosedale Garage stinks,” which we thought was pretty clever. Anyway, I’d turn the cap backward and pull it down over my eyes and watch the games that way, like one of those cartoon Cosby kids. My team and I won some games that way, me desperately guarding the lines, doing my part from the beanbag chair, them trying not to make me cry before bedtime. But enough about my insecurities.)
No game celebrates its misfortune like baseball. Maybe celebrates is too strong. Honors its misfortune. Its angst. Its fragility. Its volatility. Probably because there’s so much of it. They just carried a guy from a field in Atlanta because he didn’t want to step on the foul line and injured his knee, even though all the bad luck in Atlanta had pretty much already happened. Was he guarding against another 15 games out of first place? And we understand.
It’s called a thinking man’s (and woman’s) game, primarily because there’s so much time when hardly anything is happening, which leads to conversation, which leads to speculation, which leads to another beer, which leads to the sky is falling, or will be falling, which gets us to the Los Angeles Dodgers now that they’ve settled into this habit of losing two or three games a month.
The coming weeks will summon analysis, much of it focused on how a team playing .711 ball might possibly come apart in October. It’s what baseball is, what it does, how it consoles itself. How’s it go wrong? How’s the juggernaut lose? How do they become the 2001 Mariners? Because, “Dodgers win last night?” “Yep.” It just isn’t much of a conversation starter anymore.
So, before all that, before we look so hard for the holes that may or may not exist, consider how much had to go right in order for the Dodgers to get to 81-34, which doesn’t even look like a baseball record. More like the combination to your suitcase lock, which you forgot six years ago.
Chris Taylor is not only an everyday big-league player once acquired for Zach Lee, he’s batting .308, slugging .547 and leading regular major league left fielders (minimum 175 plate appearances in left) in OPS. Taylor bats leadoff for the team that is 81-34, in the nation’s second-largest market, and asked Friday if he’s received much attention for that, he said, “Honestly I don’t go out a whole lot. … I’ve been recognized a couple times. Once in a Buffalo Wild Wings.” Life changes fast.
Clayton Kershaw has not thrown a pitch in a game since the second inning on July 23. This was the moment that would derail the Dodgers. They have lost three times since. And he’s nearing his return.
Remember that ’98 New York Yankees team, for which Scott Brosius drove in 100 runs out of the nine hole? Yasiel Puig has taken 213 of his 360 at-bats in the eighth position, batted .289 in them and hit 14 home runs and has an on-base percentage of .362. The league’s average No. 8 hitter: .251 batting average, .323 on-base percentage, a lot of borderline pitches. So the Dodgers took a guy who’d swing at anything, protected him with the pitcher’s spot, and watched him become better. Also, if there’s a better right fielder in the sport it’s Mookie Betts, and that’s it. Also, people seem to like him more.
Alex Wood, a talented left-hander who nevertheless carried a record of 27-30, a 3.35 ERA and a 1.266 into 2017, is 14-1 with a 2.37 ERA and 1.024 WHIP in 110 1/3 innings.
Forever, it seemed, in search of a steady role and full health, Brandon Morrow signed a minor-league contract with the Dodgers and today has a 0.857 WHIP and has struck out more than 11 batters per nine across 26 relief appearances.
Kenley Jansen: 77 strikeouts, 5 walks.
Justin Turner. Being Justin Turner.
Dave Roberts. First, and long before the serious winning started, Roberts declared the Dodgers were the best team in the NL West. Strong words. Then he said they were the best team in the NL. Stronger. Then, in baseball. Well then. He’d say it in private, he’d say it in public, he’d say it when asked, he’d say it unprompted. It’s what’s known in leadership circles as a challenge.
Kyle Farmer. Dude shows up and on the sixth big-league pitch he’s ever seen beats the Giants with a double, because that’s the sort of thing that happens when your record looks like today’s high and low temperatures in Lake Tahoe, give or take.
There’s more. A lot more. Chase Utley has hit .317 for a month, for one. Corey Seager is better this year, for another. And Taylor, who said without a shrug, “Usually I kinda fly under the radar.” Except at Dodger Stadium and the best wing joints.
You know, the game’s not supposed to go like this. Doesn’t mean it can’t. But, go ahead and worry. It’s the game.