Entering 2018 with a team nearly identical to the one that fell one win short of a World Series title the year before, the Los Angeles Dodgers were heavy favorites to win their sixth straight NL West title and head back to the postseason this year.
A-hundred-and-fifty-nine games later, with one weekend remaining in the regular season, they indeed have a very real chance to clinch the West, and are almost guaranteed of a playoff spot. Yet, almost none of this season went according to script. The Dodgers have taken a new path, with a cast of unlikely characters, and now that they likely head into the postseason, they might just be poised to break the 30-year World Series drought in L.A.
During the last five years, the Dodgers have either used outright dominance to clinch the West, or relied on incredible winning stretches to carry them to the postseason. Yet, this season has seen none of that.
They were shut out on Opening Day by the Giants, and they stumbled out of the gate until mid-May.
The World Series hangover continued until May 16, when the defending NL champs lost for the second time in two nights to the worst team in the league, the Miami Marlins, and dropped to a season-worst 10 games under .500.
And while the return of superstar Justin Turner from injury the next day began a climb toward first place, it was a slow, gradual journey to get there. They would not end up leading the division until mid-July, and they have not held a firm grasp on first since.
L.A. has only been in first for 33 combined days, and their biggest lead has only stretched to 2.5 games.
While this season has not been marked by the regular season dominance of years prior, the typical contributors of seasons past have not had the same influence as before either.
Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of a generation, was sidelined for much of May and June with injuries. While he has returned since and become effective, age and injuries have made the former power pitcher into more of a Greg Maddux than a Max Scherzer.
One of the biggest strengths of the last five seasons was the man who pitches the ninth inning for L.A.: Kenley Jansen. Yet, the cutter-throwing, power-pitching Jansen has been strangely mortal this season. His five losses, four blown saves, and health issues have made Jansen look nothing like the ninth inning lock of before. The lyrics of “California Love” now perhaps bring as much nervousness as they do confidence to Dodger fans.
Perhaps no blow was bigger than the loss of franchise shortstop, Corey Seager, to Tommy John Surgery in late April. Although it was only a month into the season, the news of the injury was a setback that seemed impossible to recover from.
Yet, while the Dodgers haven’t showed the dominance of years before, or had their franchise players contributing the same as in the past, they still stand only a game out of first, and are almost guaranteed a Wild Card spot, with three games to play.
And not only will they likely be playing in October, but they have plenty of reasons to feel confident about making a deep run.
The biggest reason? Home runs.
L.A. has already blasted 227 homers, good enough for first in the N.L. and most in franchise history. They traded for Manny Machado to replace Seager in July, who is arguably the best power-hitting shortstop in the MLB. Unlikely performances by Matt Kemp and Max Muncy have added to the home run barrage, and Joc Pederson, Yasmani Grandal, Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig, and Kiké Hernandez have all hit over 20 homers each.
Dave Roberts rolls out a lineup every single day that is capable of overpowering any pitcher, and with home runs becoming an ever-important part of the game (did you watch the playoffs last year?) the long-ball has the capability to carry the Dodgers all the way through the postseason.
And while the power has been there all season, the Dodger lineup has definitely heated up down the stretch. They lead the Majors with 45 home runs in the last 30 days, and fell one game shy of a franchise record for most consecutive games with a homer with 23 straight between August and September.
Not only has the offense found their power stroke, but down the stretch, the starting pitching has quietly turned into a dominant force of their own.
Kershaw has completely reinvented himself, and the ace has 15 consecutive quality starts, dating back to July 3. In those starts, he has struck out 88, only walked 17, and has carried a dominant 2.36 ERA.
Walker Buehler, the dazzling rookie out of Vanderbilt, has perhaps been more impressive. In the last two months he has pitched to the tune of a brilliant 1.75 ERA, while compiling a ridiculous 0.89 WHIP. In that time, batters are hitting just .162 against him.
With those three starters going in a playoff series, and seasoned veteran Rich Hill following behind, the Dodgers should feel pretty good about their chances to have dominant starting pitching performances in the postseason, to back up the ridiculous power of their lineup.
Absolutely nothing has come easily for these Dodgers. They have had to scratch and claw their way back into the playoff race, find production from unlikely contributors, and overcome a serious World Series hangover. However, despite all of this, everything seems to be peaking at the right time.
That’s why, despite an uglier season than usual, the Dodgers might just end up doing one more atypical thing this season: winning the World Series.