Another 100-win season, another humiliation: why the Dodgers fail in the playoffs

The Los Angeles Dodgers achieved a special kind of baseball ignominy on Wednesday night, in the third game of their National League Division Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. In the third inning, Dodgers pitcher Lance Lynn became a successful launching pad for four Arizona home runs. It was the first time a team had homered that many times in a single playoff inning, made more preposterous by another would-be home run flying just outside the foul pole. The next pitch became a real home run, and Arizona’s four runs in the inning stood up in a 4-2 final score and three-game sweep for the D-backs. The Dodgers, winners of 100 regular-season games, won none in the postseason.

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For Los Angeles, the manner of the defeat was brutal, but the end outcome was typical. The Dodgers are the most consistent franchise in the National League and one of the game’s financial juggernauts. They’ve cleared that 100-win plateau five times in seven years and were paced to do so again in 2020’s pandemic-shortened season. They managed a World Series win in that Covid-addled year, giving their fans some salvation. Otherwise, postseason torture has come to define this era of Dodger baseball.

Different problems have befallen the Dodgers in recent postseasons. This fall’s early exit revolved around the breakdown of the team’s pitching staff. The club were missing three important starters – Walker Buehler, Tony Gonsolin, and Dustin May – after the trio ended up needing arm surgery. A fourth, Julio Urias, is on administrative leave after a second domestic violence arrest. The Dodgers relied on Clayton Kershaw, a future hall of famer who hasn’t been the same since his own injury this summer, in Game 1. Kershaw didn’t survive the first inning. They gave the ball to star rookie Bobby Miller in Game 2, and he didn’t get out of the second. And in Game 3, the 36-year-old Lynn disintegrated as the Diamondbacks put on their home run parade.

Amid a pitching crisis, the Dodger bats fell asleep against Arizona. The team hit for a miserable on-base plus slugging percentage of .498 in the three games (that number was .795 in the regular season). LA’s three most prolific hitters (outfielder Mookie Betts, first baseman Freddie Freeman, and designated hitter JD Martinez), went a combined 3-for-31. The Dodgers got one home run after hitting 249 in the regular season, MLB’s second-most.

It was a comprehensive breakdown from the start, different from the momentary lapses and rotten fortune that have so often doomed the Dodgers in Octobers gone by. The 2017 Dodgers lost the decisive seventh game of the World Series at home to the Houston Astros, whom the world later learned were cheats. That series included a Game 5 loss, by a 13-12 score, after the Dodgers had better than an 80% chance of winning. In 2019, Kershaw and the pitching staff allowed a shocking late-game rally to lose the Division Series to the Washington Nationals, who went on to win it all. In 2021, the eventual champion Atlanta Braves simply ground LA to dust in the league Championship Series. 2022 brought a rivalry humbling against the San Diego Padres, whom Dodgers fans see as a sort of little brother, in four Division Series games. The Dodgers lost three games in that series by a combined five runs.

A common thread in this postseason disappointment has been Kershaw, the left-hander who’s made an all-time career out of keeping hitters off balance. The origin of the disparity between Kershaw’s regular-season and playoff outputs will be the stuff of eternal debate in baseball circles, but its existence is undeniable. The only thing more astonishing than his career 2.48 earned-run average in the regular season is that the number rises to 4.49 in 194.1 postseason innings, which amounts to just about a full season of work spread over 12 playoff years. This year’s brief appearance, in which Kershaw got just one out and gave up six runs while clearly not at full strength, will go down as the goriest of them all.

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Where the Dodgers go from here is uncertain. Some sections of the fanbase will inevitably call for manager Dave Roberts to be fired, although the loss to the Diamondbacks was down to underperforming or absent players rather than any of his decisions. Besides, the organization has a decent argument to stay the course: Its injured pitchers should return to health, and there is no way to plan for MVP candidates Freeman and Betts falling into offensive malaises at the exact wrong time. Such is the nature of a postseason that can last just days, after a 162-game marathon that takes six months. But the team is nearing a natural transition point anyway. The 35-year-old Kershaw’s future is wholly uncertain. The Dodgers had the oldest lineup in baseball, with an average hitter age of 30.9 years. Playoff pain rarely lasts for ever without a break, as the Dodgers blessedly learned in 2020. But neither does automatic annual contention on the strength of one of the best veteran talent cores in baseball history. Eventually, the Dodgers will need to reinvent and hope that the baseball gods welcome them to the postseason with less cruel intentions.