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Rollercoaster awaits Dodgers. They're ready

@MikeLupica
September 26, 2020

This was the first question I asked Dave Roberts on Friday afternoon, before his Dodgers extended their record to 41-17 in this short season: “Are you ready to get back on the rollercoaster?” Roberts laughed. “It took me six months to recover from last year,” he said. “But yeah, I’m

This was the first question I asked Dave Roberts on Friday afternoon, before his Dodgers extended their record to 41-17 in this short season:

“Are you ready to get back on the rollercoaster?”

Roberts laughed.

“It took me six months to recover from last year,” he said. “But yeah, I’m ready to get back on. We all are.”

Roberts’ team won 106 regular-season games last year, and had a winning percentage of .694. Then everything changed in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Nationals, on consecutive home run swings by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto against Clayton Kershaw, making a 3-1 eighth-inning lead disappear. The Dodgers were that close to going back to the NL Championship Series, having the chance to go to their third straight World Series. Then the game was tied. Then they lost in the 10th on a Howie Kendrick grand slam. A nightmare half-hour and it was over, just like that.

That was the Dodgers’ rollercoaster ride in October 2019. Now they get ready for even more of a crazy ride -- an extra round of the postseason this time, having to win a best-of-three series, best-of-five and then best-of-sevens twice after that to win their first Series since 1988. Of course, they have a right to think that drought would have ended just three years ago had the Astros not been stealing their signs.

The Dodgers have the best record in the sport with two games left, with an even better winning percentage this time -- .707 -- than they had last year.

“So far we’ve answered the bell,” Roberts said on Friday.

We talked then about his team’s series against the Padres, when the NL West rivals were making their big run in the division, had won eight in a row and had gotten to within a game-and-a-half of first place after beating the Dodgers in San Diego. But the Dodgers beat the Padres the next night, and the night after that -- and were on their way to winning the NL West for the eighth season in a row.

“Our guys answered the bell there,” Roberts said, “and won that series.”

I asked about Cody Bellinger, who will be looking for October redemption as much as any of them when the postseason begins next week. Bellinger was the NL MVP in 2019, but he didn’t have a home run or an RBI in that NLDS against the Nationals. Bellinger came into the last two days of this season with a .238 average, to go with 12 homers and 39 RBIs. His OPS was .783, after 1.035 a year ago. His slugging percentage was .452, after .629 in 2019.

“He’s going to be fine,” Roberts said of Bellinger. “He’s taking walks when he needs to the last two weeks. There was a time earlier when he was chasing hits. But he’s getting his swing right mechanically. He’s moving the ball forward.”

Then Roberts was talking about the new guy, Mookie Betts -- the MVP in the American League in 2018, when the Red Sox beat the Dodgers in the World Series. He used the expression “bandwidth” to talk about the impact Betts has made on his new team.

“By bandwidth,” Roberts said, “I’m talking about a superstar player who has the ability to make the people around him better. He makes the right plays on the field. He says the right things, especially to his teammates, and has the ability to help young players and to help veterans.

“But perhaps the thing that has impressed me the most about him is how present he is, in just about every situation. Present when he’s on the bases. Present in right field. Present every single time he steps into the batter’s box.”

Roberts, one of the best and smartest guys in the game -- one who has been so eloquent on the subject of social justice over the past couple of months -- was asked what the key is for the Dodgers as they try to make this ride in October different than the two previous ones.

“The key is what it always is at this time of year,” he said. “We’re going to have to prevent runs, we’re going to have to catch the baseball. And offensively, we are going to need to be better at team offense than we’ve ever been. What that means is that as a group, we have to understand the value of 90 feet at a time. There’ve been times [in the postseason] over the past four years when we’ve expanded the zone too much, when we didn’t get on base enough, when we sometimes got caught up in trying to slug too much.

“All we have to really do is play the kind of baseball, in totality, that we’re playing right now. If we do, we’re going to be very successful.”

The manager of the Dodgers paused then, before adding one last observation, or maybe it was a warning:

“We’re playing our best baseball right now.”

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.