'Blue-collar' Dodgers grinding way down stretch

LA playing 'October baseball in September' in heated pennant race

September 21st, 2018

LOS ANGELES -- They had gone to Game 7 of the World Series last season, but by May 8 of this season, the Dodgers were already nine games out of first place in the National League West. A week or so later, they were 10 games under .500, still 8 1/2 games out of first. And from that time on, Dave Roberts' team went to work.

We talk all the time about blue-collar sports teams. In L.A. this season, in a very glamorous city, that became Dodger Blue.

I was talking about all that with Roberts -- someone who has always been easy to root for -- on Wednesday, hours before hit a big home run the way Chris Taylor had hit one the night before in the bottom of the 10th; Puig's blast would help the Dodgers to sweep the Rockies and get ahead in the NL West by 2 1/2 games.

"What I've seen," Roberts said, "is a group of men, on a team I never stopped believing in, now justifying that belief. All along, I kept making a bet that in the end, this would all play itself out in a positive way. And just where we are right now is so gratifying because we went through all the injuries we did, because we did go four or five months not playing our best.

"But no one in here made excuses. Our players continued to be proactive, to just see the game in front of them, and play that game, and continue to buy in, and continue to pull for each other. And it's been such a galvanizing thing to be a part of."

Roberts paused. He knows there is still more season to play. He knows there are no sure things for what has become a vastly entertaining and appealing baseball team, because there are never sure things in baseball. Roberts found that out when he was with the Red Sox in 2004; when the Sox were down 0-3 in the American League Championship Series and three outs away from next season. Then in the ninth inning of Game 4 at Fenway Park, Kevin Millar got a walk off the great Mariano Rivera and Roberts ran for him, and promptly stole the most famous base in Red Sox history, and maybe postseason history.

You sort of know about all the galvanizing things that happened to the 2004 Red Sox after that.

Now, all this time later, there is still work to be done for Roberts' Dodgers, just across the last three series of the regular season, against the Padres and D-backs (who looked as if they might run away from the Dodgers and everyone else in the NL West early) and finally the Giants, who are always laying for Los Angeles. Still, his Dodgers have done plenty to get to where they are from where they were at 16-26 on May 16.

"Eight and nine games back is a lot of ground to cover, even in May," Roberts said. "But one thing you can't do as a team or a manager is panic. Instead, we just went to work. Game after game, we just did a very good job of trying to win that day. It's still the best way to dispel expectations and noise and pressure. But through it all, we know we're expected to perform because we are the Dodgers. We know it, and the teams playing us know it. The Yankees know what that's like, and the Cubs, and the Red Sox. Even when you're down, it comes with the territory that you're expected to pick yourself up. And that's what we did.

"Now we're playing October baseball in September. We're playing playoff baseball already, and that's where I think being the Dodgers, and having gone through what we did just last season maybe gives us a bit of a leg up. I see it from our guys every day. I see how 's experiences, all the way back to when the Dodgers came up short in the 2015 postseason, have given him the confidence to be the kind of leader he is for us now."

Finally, Roberts said this: "The kind of big moments we've had just this week, I think our fans expect those big moments from the Dodgers. And believe they should get big moments like them every year."

Even after all the injuries the Dodgers have had, starting with the big one to that ended up bringing Manny Machado to L.A., Roberts loves his team's depth now, saying he believes they pose matchup fits for everybody they are playing in September and beyond.

"People who appreciate teams that play all 27 outs, I don't see how they can't appreciate this Dodger team," Roberts said.

The Dodgers did not get a share of first place in the West until Sept. 1. Going into Friday night, the Dodgers were 69-42 since May 16. Roberts, who has had one of the best baseball minds all the way back to when he was stealing second at Fenway that night in October 2004, believes he has figured things out with his bullpen, and believes his team is playing its best possible ball at the best possible time: October ball in September.

"This is the fun part," Roberts said.

At a time when Los Angeles is starting to feel like one of the sports capitals of the world again, because of the Rams and because of LeBron, here come the blue-collar Dodgers.

Dodger-blue collars. Not a bad look.