LOS ANGELES -- From the moment the Dodgers lost last year’s World Series they have been laser-focused on this year’s World Series, but now they’ll have to watch it on their big screens like the rest of us.
Stunned by the Wild Card Washington Nationals in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series on Wednesday night, 7-3 in 10 innings, the Dodgers took this elimination more emotionally than their two World Series losses, worse than any of their postseason eliminations over the last seven years.
“Yeah, we really thought we had it,” said Cody Bellinger, who hit .211 with no home runs or RBIs. “They came back on us multiple times. They didn’t give up.”
That was supposed to be the Dodgers’ calling card, with 12 walk-off wins on the resume. But while the Dodgers viewed this as a necessary stepping stone to the World Series, the Nationals played like this was their World Series. They became the fourth team in history to win a winner-take-all game in extras on the road.
Manager Dave Roberts took the brunt of fan displeasure when he made his final pitching change of the season.
“I mean, if the blame falls on me, I've got no problem with it,” he said. “I feel that my job is to put guys in the best position to have success and if it doesn't work out, there's always going to be second-guessing, and I got no problem wearing the brunt of that. That's OK.”
For the Dodgers, a record-breaking regular season of 106 wins, of MVP and Cy Young candidates and homers by the hundreds will be defined instead by the anguished image of Clayton Kershaw squatting on the mound, then on the bench with head in his hands, having just allowed home runs to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto on back-to-back pitches to tie the game and blow a 3-1 lead Walker Buehler handed him.
Never mind that the game was actually decided in the 10th inning when Joe Kelly -- signed for October moments like these after his World Series heroics against the Dodgers last year -- allowed a grand slam to former Dodger Howie Kendrick in his second inning of work, something he was rarely asked to try in September when he was idled with an unspecified ailment.
The Dodgers have gone 31 years without a World Series win, Kershaw has played in nine postseasons without a ring and he took the blame.
“I let down the guys in the clubhouse,” said Kershaw, his eyes red. “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 main reason is the group of guys in this clubhouse. It’s just a terrible feeling.
“I had one job to do, to get three outs. I got one out and didn’t get the other two. They went over the fence and it cost us the game right there. So it’s a terrible feeling. No excuses, just didn’t make pitches and guys hit it over the fence twice.”
Kershaw has never allowed home runs on back-to-back pitches in the regular season, according to Elias. This is the second time he has done it in the postseason. The first: Oct. 6, 2017, against Ketel Marte and Jeff Mathis with the D-backs.
Game 1 winner Buehler allowed one run and left a jam for Kershaw to defuse with a three-pitch strikeout of Adam Eaton.
“I thought we were home free,” Buehler said.
Before the game Roberts said he would “ride” Buehler as long as possible and follow with Kershaw. That was the plan, and if it had worked the Dodgers would have had a rested bullpen for the next round. So Roberts didn’t call on Kenta Maeda, who followed Kershaw with three strikeouts. And he didn’t bring on Adam Kolarek to retire Soto for the fourth time in the series.
Roberts went with his three-time Cy Young winner. But Rendon hit a low 89 mph slider, Soto walloped a mislocated 89 mph slider 449 feet and the game was tied. Two innings later, Kendrick -- with the second extra-inning grand slam in postseason history -- atoned for his series-long reckless glove with the home run that will guarantee he never has to buy a beer in D.C. again. The maligned Nationals bullpen locked it down and the Dodgers watched, again, a visiting team celebrating all over their field.
There was sadness and disbelief in a home clubhouse that found so many ways to win this year.
“The expectation from Day 1 was to win the World Series,” said Enrique Hernández. “We lost the last few years in the World Series and one didn’t hurt more than the other. This one sucks. Winning 106 games in the regular season and going home after one round, it sucks. Maybe down the road when we all retire we can look back on all the records we broke as a team this year for a historic franchise like the Dodgers. For us to be one and done, it’s tough. I don’t think anyone in this clubhouse expected us to be going home this soon. It sucks. There’s no other way of putting it.”
While Kershaw took full blame, teammates defended him.
“What’s lost in this is that Game 5 wasn’t it,” said Buehler. “We lost two other games along the way. Got 25 guys, 40 guys and we didn’t get it done.”
“We had a lot of opportunities to add onto that lead after the second,” said Hernandez. “At the end of the day, if we would have scored one more run we might have won that game. For Kersh to say [it’s his fault], that’s the man that he is. But it’s on everybody. We all lost. We got beat.”
The bullpen, the weak link all season, absorbed two of the losses. Kelly and Pollock (11 strikeouts in 13 at-bats), the two big offseason signings, were October busts. Bellinger was quiet with the bat but Corey Seager was worse, hitting .150 with eight strikeouts in 20 at-bats. The Dodgers relied on three rookies, with Matt Beaty (.375) seriously overshadowing the more highly touted Will Smith (.077) and Gavin Lux (.222, six strikeouts in nine at-bats).
Buehler, who allowed one hit in six scoreless innings of Game 1, allowed one run over 6 2/3 innings and 117 pitches with seven strikeouts. That’s why the Dodgers lined up the rotation with Kershaw starting Game 2 and ERA champ Hyun-Jin Ryu in Game 3. They wanted Buehler to lead it off with a chance to close it out.
“It just sucks watching the other team celebrate on your field again,” said Muncy. “That’s a crappy feeling. That’s all there is to it.”