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Dodgers' up-and-down season reaching critical stretch

Final five weeks preface important offseason ahead
August 23, 2018

It must be truly exhausting to be a Dodgers fan this year. Coming off its first World Series appearance in nearly 30 years, a breakthrough that ended up just one game short of the franchise's seventh championship, Los Angeles came into 2018 looking like slam-dunk favorites in National League West,

It must be truly exhausting to be a Dodgers fan this year. Coming off its first World Series appearance in nearly 30 years, a breakthrough that ended up just one game short of the franchise's seventh championship, Los Angeles came into 2018 looking like slam-dunk favorites in National League West, and probably the NL in general.
All but one among FanGraphs' 40 writers polled picked the Dodgers to win the division. Here at MLB.com, we had had them as the even-money favorite to reach the World Series, along with, uh, the Nationals. Los Angeles brought most players back from a team that last year won 104 games, and was one that Sports Illustrated was calling "the greatest team ever" last August. Why wouldn't one have picked the Dodgers to win it all?
And then everything fell apart. Corey Seager underwent seson-ending Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in May. Clayton Kershaw hit the disabled list with left bicep tendinitis that same month. Kenley Jansen blew three saves in the season's first two weeks. After a six-game losing streak to Cincinnati and Miami in May, Los Angeles was in last place in the NL West at 16-26, 8 1/2 games out of first and in total chaos.
The Seager injury, combined with the Kershaw and Justin Turner (left wrist fracture) injuries, were just too much to overcome. Aberration years happen. Tough luck, Dodgers.

Except the Dodgers finally figured it out. They went 17-9 in June and took over first place in the NL West by July 12. Los Angeles reacted with a trademark move of trading for superstar shortstop Manny Machado, and with Kershaw and Turner back, it looked like smooth sailing at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. 
Except after a brutal sweep this week at the hands of the Cardinals, the Dodgers are 8-12 in August and find themselves in serious trouble. They're 4 1/2 games out of first place in the NL West and 3 1/2 out for the second NL Wild Card spot, with three teams ahead of them. They're closer to the selling Nationals than they are to the Brewers, who hold the second NL Wild Card spot.
Still, the Dodgers entered Thursday with more than a 50 percent chance of reaching the postseason, according to both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus, but it sure doesn't feel that way.
"We've put ourselves in a position where the margin is getting smaller," manager Dave Roberts said after Wednesday night's 3-1 loss, in which Jansen gave up a homer in the ninth inning for the third time in two outings since returning from the DL. "You can hope, expect ... but right now, it's just not happening for us."

It looks darker now that it did back in May. You can forgive Dodgers fans for just wishing this team would pick a lane already. Are they back? Are they not back? 
One of the more frustrating aspects of this season for Dodgers fans is that it's the first time their team has not improved in an ordered, linear fashion. Starting in 2013, right before president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and Co. took over, they have been a little bit better, or at least stayed the same, every year. 
2013: 92-70, lost in NL Championship Series to Cardinals
2014: 94-68, lost in NL Division Series to Cardinals
2015: 92-70, lost in NLDS to Mets
2016: 91-71, lost in NLCS to Cubs
2017: 104-58, lost in World Series to Astros
When you're on that kind of run, and you're that close, you can be forgiven for expecting another step forward the next season, particularly when you overcome a terrible start and end up trading for an All-Star like Machado. 
And in a vacuum, the Dodgers should be killing it. They've got the fifth-best run differential (plus-106) in baseball and the best in the NL. Their Pythagorean record is 75-53, eight games better than their actual record. Their lineup remains stacked: James Dozier was the only hitter that they sent out Wednesday night with an OPS+ below 112, which is remarkable. The worst pitcher in their rotation, Rich Hill, has a 3.73 ERA and a 9.6 strikeout-per-nine-innings rate. You look at L.A.'s roster and think: "Man, this should be the best team in the NL."
But it's not working that way.
The primary culprit of late has been the bullpen, which faltered when Jansen was out earlier this month with an irregular heart beat and then engulfed him in its problems when he returned. Jansen's ninth-inning meltdowns against the Cardinals are the reason the Dodgers got swept in the first place. 
This all comes against the backdrop of an extremely pivotal offseason looming. The Dodgers are finally under the luxury tax threshold for the first time in several years, and this offseason's free-agent market, as you might have heard, is robust, with two current Dodgers (Kershaw, assuming he opts out, and Machado) and one that the Dodgers reportedly just claimed off revocable trade waivers (Bryce Harper) before he was pulled back, proving Los Angeles has at least some interest in him.

The assumption has been that the Dodgers will be in on each of those guys, heck, maybe all three. But how does that change if Los Angeles misses the postseason this year? Will the Dodgers face more urgency to make moves, or less? And how does that change the view of the club moving forward? Remember, under Friedman, they have been considered an exemplary baseball franchise -- one that combines front office wisdom with intense fan support and financial muscle.
They have seen the results, with five consecutive NL West titles for a postseason streak that is currently the longest in baseball. But they haven't won that elusive World Series title since 1988, and now you're looking at the very real possibility that they miss the postseason entirely. Take a look at the Nationals, and examine what years of falling just short in October is doing to a club currently loaded with talent but that just sold off critical pieces, Matt Adams and Daniel Murphy, in a gesture that essentially waves the white flag. 
There won't be that much of a reckoning in L.A., but for the first time since Friedman and Co. took over, there will be some hard questions asked. The Dodgers don't seem like a dysfunctional organization, but when you win 104 games and then fail to make the playoffs in a season in which 90 wins might get you there, you start looking like one.
The Dodgers still have plenty of opportunities. They still have seven games against the D-backs and six against the Rockies, the two clubs they're chasing in the NL West. Beyond that, they only have four other games left against a team with a winning record (the Cardinals again, in mid-September). The opportunities are there.
There is no reason that the Dodgers can't still pull this off. This season has been as tumultuous and exhausting and whiplash-inducing as any in recent Dodgers memory. And it'll be burned into the memory of L.A. fans forever if they fall short. The next six weeks for the Dodgers are arguably as pivotal as any in the franchise's past decade. The next direction for one of baseball's most storied franchises, and one of its most starved fanbases, depends entirely on what happens next. 

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.