Dodgers' quest to repeat ends in NLCS

October 24th, 2021

ATLANTA -- When the Dodgers arrived at Camelback Ranch in February, everyone looked at the collection of talent inside the room and had a clear vision of how they thought their season would end.

That image included a massive dogpile on the mound after the final out of the season. An epic champagne celebration would be waiting for them inside the clubhouse. It would then all come to an end with a parade around the city of Los Angeles. Those were all the things the Dodgers, who snapped the franchise’s 32-year World Series drought in 2020, were unable to enjoy due to a global pandemic.

With several prominent pieces of a core that has led the Dodgers to nine consecutive postseason appearances headed for free agency, Los Angeles knew this might be the last time this group would be able to achieve that goal.

Instead, the Dodgers’ season came to an end on Saturday in a 4-2 loss to the Braves in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at Truist Park, snapping a seven-game winning streak in elimination games that was the third longest in MLB history. Their focus will now turn to what will be one of the most important winters since president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman took over in 2014.

“The six years that I’ve been here it’s been a core group of guys that potentially could be turned over this winter,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “I’m not looking forward to it. ... They’re great players and great men, and I wish we could have won another one with this group.”

This core of players accomplished just about everything together. They won eight consecutive NL West titles, reached three World Series and were finally able to finish the job in ‘20. The Dodgers had a $267 million payroll in ‘21, a number that appears to be unsustainable moving forward, meaning L.A. will have some tough decisions this offseason.

The most notable free agents include Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Seager and Kenley Jansen. Kershaw received a PRP injection in his left elbow earlier this month and his future is unclear. The left-hander is arguably the best pitcher in franchise history, but he’ll have to decide whether he wants to return to the Dodgers, play closer to his Dallas-area home or potentially retire.

“It’s hard, because we’re at this little crossroads, where we have a lot of guys who have been free agents and a lot of guys that have been building blocks for this franchise for a long time,” said Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler, who started Game 6 on short rest because Scherzer was experiencing arm fatigue. “I hope everyone’s back, right, but that’s not the reality of the situation, and we’re going to have to build from within, like we always do, and bring some guys back.”

The list of free agents doesn’t stop there. Super-utility man Chris Taylor, who led the team with four homers this postseason, could be a target for many teams. Much like Kershaw, Albert Pujols will also have to make a decision on his future. The Dodgers will also have to decide how to proceed with Trevor Bauer, who spent the last three months on paid administrative leave. He’s owed $35 million next season.

“To potentially not see those guys back, it’s sort of a changing of the guard,” Roberts said. “If they’re not back, whoever is not back, I’m certainly going to miss them personally, and our team’s going to miss them.”

Following the game, Jansen and Taylor admitted that they haven’t thought about their offseason decisions. Jansen noted that he has been with the organization since he was 17 years old. During that time, he went from a catcher to arguably the best closer in franchise history.

Seager, however, did make it clear that he would “absolutely” love to be back with the Dodgers. But the star shortstop, who won NLCS and World Series MVP honors last October, is expected to be a primary target for any team looking for an upgrade at his position. The Dodgers also acquired Trea Turner, who is the obvious solution at shortstop if Seager leaves in free agency.

“You’re saying goodbyes without really knowing,” Seager said. “You do the normal stuff. You wish everybody a happy offseason. Remember how it feels, prepare for next year, stuff like that. But then you’re uncertain about where you’ll be. It’s definitely sad.”

Though they came up short, the Dodgers made a strong bid for a repeat. They won a franchise-record 106 games in the regular season, the most by a defending champion. Los Angeles was able to survive the NL Wild Card Game against the Cardinals as well as a grueling five-game NL Division Series against the Giants, who snapped the Dodgers’ eight-year run of dominance in the NL West.

But in the end, the Dodgers were unable to overcome a string of injuries at the most inopportune time. They lost Kershaw to a left elbow injury on Oct. 1. Two days later, Max Muncy was also done for the season. In the postseason, Los Angeles saw Joe Kelly and Justin Turner go down with injuries.

To make matters worse, the Dodgers were forced to scratch Scherzer from the Game 6 start. Instead, Buehler took the mound on short rest for the second time this postseason. The right-hander allowed four runs over four innings, with the big blow coming on an Eddie Rosario two-out three-run homer in the fourth.

“We were ready to play through October. We just didn’t get it done,” Roberts said. “It’s tough because I don’t want to take anything away from the Braves. We put our best foot forward. We fought. And they beat us in a series.”

Despite all the obstacles, the Dodgers still had an opportunity to force a Game 7 on Sunday. Their best chance to come back came in the seventh inning, a sequence that might haunt them all winter long.

With one run already in on AJ Pollock’s RBI double, the Dodgers looked ready to tack on some more with runners at second and third and the potential go-ahead run at the plate with nobody out. But Pujols, Steven Souza Jr. and Mookie Betts all struck out against Braves left-hander Tyler Matzek.

“We just didn’t come through in a couple spots,” Betts said. “I guess that’s who is going to take all the blame, but you definitely got to tip your cap with their guys coming in and shutting us down. It is what it is.”

The Dodgers now shift their attention to a crucial offseason. It’s a day they knew was inevitable, but one they hoped would come after six more wins.

“This is real playoffs, and we didn’t get it done,” Buehler said. “We’ve been there before, and bounced back and won games. That’s what we’re going to continue to do. It’s hard right now. It’ll be OK in Spring Training.”