Here's one thing that hasn't changed in 2020: the Dodgers will play in the postseason.
The Dodgers clinched an eighth consecutive playoff berth Wednesday with a 7-5 win over the Padres at Petco Park, combined with losses by Colorado and Milwaukee.
The Dodgers just didn't know it. Los Angeles prides itself on thinking through every scenario, but it claimed to have overlooked this one.
"I think it caught us all by surprise -- we were so focused on winning the series," said manager Dave Roberts, who has been insistent that any and all clinchings are worth celebrating, even eight in a row, as the Dodgers' string continues. "I think word will travel on the plane. But it should be celebrated, for sure."
That said, Roberts conceded this clinching is "different" than all the others.
"I just found it out five minutes ago," Roberts said. "We still have a lot of baseball to play, but it's a credit to those guys in the clubhouse."
With home runs from AJ Pollock and Chris Taylor, a two-run double by Will Smith and the second three-steal game of Mookie Betts' career, the Dodgers' magic number to clinch the National League West is seven because they own the first tiebreaker for the division, having gone 6-4 head to head against the Padres this year.
While the clinching was an overriding goal, the series rubber match also doubled as a lab experiment, as the Dodgers pulled a late pitching switch. Instead of starting Dustin May as announced, they pivoted to a modified bullpen game opened by Brusdar Graterol, who was charged with one run in 1 1/3 innings. May, healed from a bruised left foot suffered in his last start, pitched the bulk of the game, allowing home runs to Jurickson Profar and Manny Machado with six strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings.
"I had a lot of experience [relieving] last year," said May. "I came out of the gate firing, just knowing I had to be ready on pitch one."
After losing the chippy series opener to the upstart Padres, the Dodgers looked more like themselves in the following two wins. And their pitchers held NL MVP Award candidate Fernando Tatis Jr. to a 1-for-12 nightmare.
"We just attack, let them make the mistakes," said May. "We find a spot and we just exploit it, and I feel like we did a very good job of it in this series."
It was the Dodgers' second bullpen game in their last four contests, third in the last five and there's another on tap for Friday. That's no accident in an age of postseason openers and bulk pitchers and exploiting matchups and gamesmanship. Last week, starter Tony Gonsolin allowed three runs in five innings of relief. Before this game, Roberts said he was seeking information, either to prepare for using unconventional tactics or plant a seed in the minds of opponents that he might face in the postseason.
"I thought Graterol threw the baseball well as a spot starter and opener," Roberts said. "For Dustin to kind of take on that role for a day, to run that play out, was good for him and for us to go through. We learned a lot."
Among them is the likelihood of going through the postseason without left-handed reliever Caleb Ferguson, who has a significant tear in the UCL of his elbow and faces a decision between pitching with it or having another surgery. He had Tommy John surgery as a high school senior in 2014.
Never good news, but a hitless, one-run outing by rookie Victor González at least provides an effective alternative (3-0, 1.59 ERA).
Roberts also reported that Pollock left the game in the sixth inning with a hamstring cramp that he said was not serious, but he also said he was unsure if Pollock would play on Thursday in Denver. Zach McKinstry pinch-hit for Justin Turner with two outs in the ninth and struck out in his debut. Roberts said Turner did not reinjure the left hamstring that put him on the injured list for three weeks and Roberts wanted to keep it that way.