I’ve been at least halfheartedly rooting for the Dodgers during their playoff runs since 2017, thanks to the influence of Defector’s Diana Moskovitz and the irrelevance of my own Detroit Tigers. But this year, unlike the team’s prior failures against each of the last four eventual champs, feels different than those ultimately fruitless Octobers, and not just for the obvious pandemic-related reasons.
While the Dodgers’ 13 postseason games this year have all been played in front of limited or no fans, this specific group of guys has a collective personality that lights up the ballpark anyway, and watching them so far has been an opportunity to share in the tangible joy of baseball’s most charismatic and experienced postseason gang. Particularly since Game 5 of the NLCS, the Dodgers have won ballgames with an effortless, likable swagger, hitting big home runs in all the right moments and doing so with a smile on their faces.
Mookie Betts is the easiest person to credit for this shift in the Dodgers’ energy from cursed underachievers to commanding front-runners. Along with fellow former Red Sock Joe Kelly, Betts is the only guy on this roster who’s actually won it all, doing so against L.A. in 2018. But beyond simply bringing the confidence of a past winner into the clubhouse, Betts has proven game after game why it was a no-brainer for the Dodgers to reel him in from Boston and give him a blockbuster contract. As Kelsey pointed out this morning, you never know exactly how Betts is going to help win you the ballgame, but you know it’s going to be memorable—a momentum-shifting home run, a breathtaking defensive play, or even a sudden stolen base. Betts doesn’t feel like the Dodgers’ missing piece so much as he does the picture on the box of the completed puzzle.
Complementing Betts in the lineup are plenty of tenured bats that are swinging for redemption—Kiké Hernandez, Justin Turner, Corey Seager’s hair. But nobody stands out more than Cody Bellinger, who looks like a California baseball player right out of central casting. At first glance, last year’s MVP plays with an easygoing bounce—a big headband, a cute smile, and a perpetual stoned expression whenever he’s chilling in the dugout—but that contentment can explode into marshaled power and determined hustle whenever it’s needed.
Bellinger’s numbers in 56 regular-season games were a letdown from last year, but in the postseason he’s rediscovered his menace and become one of his team’s biggest heroes. Just like Betts, the man can crush hitters’ hopes from the warning track. But my favorite little subplot of the last two games is how Bellinger has conscientiously toned down his own home run celebration. In Game 7 against the Braves, his go-ahead dong prompted a leaping arm bump with Hernandez that dislocated Bellinger’s shoulder, and while it is extremely badass that he just had it popped back in and didn’t leave the game, last night’s homer prompted a smart change in protocol.
Some of the more fun stuff about the Dodgers’ pitching may feel a bit superficial, like Dustin May’s big carrot top mane and Waluigi energy. But Clayton Kershaw’s Game 1 start emphasized how this L.A. run could produce some redemption on the mound as well. And what’s brand-new and been especially thrilling to discover out of the bullpen these last few weeks is young reliever Brusdar Graterol. The 22-year-old became famous in the LDS when he got under Manny Machado’s skin with an exaggerated celebration, and he’s bothered hitter after hitter with triple-digit velocity and the infuriating movement of his sinker. For a fan, he’s a treat. Graterol’s just a happy dude, a jolly newcomer unburdened by any kind of October history and willing to hurl no matter how bright the spotlight.
The Rays are no killjoys, mind you. Guys like Manny Margot and Randy Arozarena play like sandlot kids who have unexpectedly found themselves at the top of the American League, because, well, that’s basically what they are. Their celebration after defeating the Yankees, in particular, has stuck with me for its expression of delight in the middle of an unfamiliar city, an empty park, and nothing but a boombox and their own elation.
But the Rays, like the frisky Padres and Braves that the Dodgers previously dispatched, might as well be carrying around a sign that says “Wait A Few Years.” While no Dodgers player or fan would dare jinx this squad by believing their Game 1 win signals more easy victories to come, the story of the postseason so far has been “The Dodgers are too talented to not win this time.” This franchise has seemingly learned and recovered from every misstep, every loss, every melancholy winter and have finally coalesced to form their scariest, most dominant incarnation yet. Lucky for us, it’s also their most entertaining.