102 Wins Usually Feels Better Than This
1:20 PM EDT on September 30, 2021
Last night's win was a pretty sweet game in what should be a pretty sweet season for the defending champion Dodgers. After jumping out to an early lead that was erased by a surprisingly poor outing from Max Scherzer, the Dodger boys rallied from four runs down with a barrage of dingers that began in the seventh inning. Mookie hit one! Muncy hit one! A.J. Pollock hit one! Cody Bellinger, who's been a wreck this year, hit one! And finally Corey Seager got one in the eighth with an honest-to-goodness runner on base to break a 9-9 tie.
There are simply so many good things that you can say about the Dodgers this year. Kelsey already said plenty, mainly about Trea Turner, today. But here are some more: As a team, the Dodgers have by far the lowest ERA in the Majors—3.01 compared to the next best team's 3.27. They're leading in FIP, too, which indicates that they're stopping bad guys from scoring through skill and not luck. And perhaps most infuriatingly for other teams, they're stranding a whopping 76.8 percent of opposing baserunners, easily the best mark in the league as well.
The hitters are almost as dominant. The Dodgers' 5.04 runs per game is tops in the National League. Their team batting average, as a whole, is a middling .243, but they make up for it by drawing walks more often than anyone except the Yankees and by socking the fourth-most dingers of any franchise this year. (Last night's showing certainly helped bulk up that number.)
If this feels like kind of a bloodless way to evaluate a great baseball season, you're not wrong. But the Dodgers have also proven to be exciting and entertaining television for those who stay up for them. Though he's perhaps been overshadowed a bit by all the cool young dudes like Tatis and Vlad and Soto and Ohtani (not to mention hobbled by his hip injury), Mookie Betts continues to be an electric presence in the outfield, one who can make season-defining plays with his glove and has 20 different tricks to get on base and then tear shit up. Max Muncy, though he's slumping a bit right now, boasts this uncanny ability to become one with the strike zone that forces pitchers to either walk him or plant a pitch right down the middle that he can drive for one of his 36 home runs. And the pitching staff is embarrassingly loaded, with Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, and Clayton Kershaw carrying most of this season's load. But since the trade deadline, the marquee star has been Scherzer and his red-hot intensity. Even with a couple of recent shaky performances, the Dodgers have not lost in any of the three-time Cy Young winner's 11 starts, and in six of those he's avoided allowing a single run.
OK, but here's the sad part: None of it really matters! You know what was happening while Los Angeles was unleashing the fireworks against the Padres? Kris Bryant was chasing a pitch way out of the zone to knock a little sac fly into right that scored Steven Duggar to give the San Francisco Giants a 1-0 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks. It was the Giants' fifth win in a row and 104th on the season, and despite all that happened in L.A. it allowed them to maintain a two-game lead on the NL West with four games remaining. Though not impossible, it remains highly unlikely that the Dodgers are going to be able to wrestle control of this division away from baseball's biggest surprise of the year, and as a result they'll be cursed to flip a coin against a seemingly charmed Cardinals team that finally, with nothing left to play for, had its 17-game winning streak ended on Wednesday.
I think I speak for all but the most optimistic of Giants fans when I say that we all kind of figured that the Dodgers would just, you know, catch up at some point. After the first two months of the season, when the Giants were 34-21, they were an interesting outlier perhaps benefiting from the extra rest that 2020 provided their elderly. At the beginning of July, as they held just a half game on the Dodgers, it didn't feel like a safe bet to say that the oldest hitters in baseball would be able to keep up the pace. In August, the tide began to turn, as the Dodgers took what a three-game deficit at the beginning of the month and won 21 of 27 to turn it into a half-game lead by the end. But then a funny thing happened: The Giants somehow found yet another gear in September and started winning by more lopsided scorelines than they had all season. And now they're as few as two days away from running out the clock on the division favorites.
Going all the way back to The Shot Heard 'Round The World and the ninth-inning rally to win the 1962 NL tiebreaker, the Giants have long showed a knack for breaking Dodger hearts. (And vice versa, of course.) This season, if one of these teams doesn't make it to the proper start of the playoffs, it'll be a bit less direct (the Cardinals will have to inflict that final blow) but no less heartbreaking. If the Giants somehow slip into the wild card game and lose, a season that had all the misty-eyed wonder of a final performance on Broadway will be crushed into nothingness in the most unceremonious way imaginable. But far more likely, it'll be the Dodgers putting their 100-win season on the line in one nine-inning game to earn a chance to take on their season-long tormentors.
It's not fair, but I guess it's never been fair. When the Dodgers went 102-63 in 1962 but couldn't get the three outs they needed at the end to keep the Giants out of the World Series, they were probably saying it wasn't fair. Though the playoff formats have changed beyond recognition, Major League Baseball has always been to some extent about the good or bad luck of the league's alignment and the quality of your closest rivals. (Before 1995, not all that long ago, one of these 100-plus-win teams wouldn't have made the playoffs at all.) But it's got to be a weird feeling, being the defending champions and being so deeply unsatisfied with an all-time great year, because you can already feel the guillotine blade being raised ahead of a winner-take-all game next week. And it makes these last four games meaningful, sure, but also strangely empty; or, if they possess any emotion at all, it's looming dread. Unless you can truly, honestly get yourself to believe that the division is still up for grabs—and I admire you plenty if you can—the Dodgers' season starts Wednesday.