Finishing second in the NL West does not actually give you an edge in the postseason, despite what Los Angeles Dodgers fans might be thinking right now. One year after the San Diego Padres knocked out the 111-win Dodgers and two years after the Dodgers knocked out the 107-win San Francisco Giants, the Arizona Diamondbacks — 2023’s version of the scrappy second fiddle — are threatening to send the Dodgers’ season out with another tune on the world’s smallest violin.
Coming off their third straight 100-win regular season (and fifth straight at a 100-win pace, including 2020), the Dodgers are once again facing the harsh realities of postseason baseball: Charged into a best-of-five showdown for the NLDS, the game offers no deference to how successful the organization is, how many good players were on the roster this season or how many wins the team racked up from April to September.
No, the postseason game is cold and sometimes cruel. Like a teacher with their back to the class, playoff baseball doesn’t call on those with their hands up. It just calls on someone and asks the question.
In the first two games of this NLDS against the 84-win Diamondbacks, the Dodgers who have been called upon have not had the answers. Arizona pounced on Clayton Kershaw in Game 1, scoring six runs in the first inning.
“I think sometimes, as Clayton did yesterday, you’ve just got to take your medicine and say, I wasn’t good enough on that particular outing,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Sunday.
Baseball doles out a lot of that medicine, and it can boggle the mind to compare failures that become preludes to triumph with failures that become preludes to long, disappointing winters.
In Monday’s Game 2, the Dodgers sent rookie starting pitcher Bobby Miller to the mound seeking to regain their footing in the series. The 24-year-old who functioned as the Dodgers’ most reliable starter down the stretch came out firing 100 mph but couldn’t get ahead of D-backs hitters. He allowed a comparatively tame three runs but lasted only 1 2/3 innings. Arizona, meanwhile, sent ace and Cy Young candidate Zac Gallen to the mound and got 5 1/3 innings of two-run ball.
By most any measure, the 2023 Dodgers have a better pitching staff than the 2023 Diamondbacks. Despite a wave of injuries and Julio Urías landing on administrative leave following domestic violence allegations, the Dodgers have more worthy, proven MLB arms to consider running out to the mound. Yet in the compressed competition of a short series, the D-backs arguably have the edge. Gallen and Game 1 starter Merrill Kelly are steadier top-of-the-rotation types than anyone the Dodgers have behind Kershaw, and the scramble to make the playoffs and win the wild-card series wound up slotting the duo into Games 1 and 2. That’s one bit of timing that tilted things toward the D-backs, at least a little.
Timing explains only who faces off, though. Gallen had never earned a victory at Dodger Stadium before Monday, and in the fifth inning, he faced a key situation, needing to get Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman out with runs threatening. Perhaps noticing that Dodgers hitters were sitting on his fastball, he landed a key strikeout against Freeman with a string of curveballs.
Another bit of (bad for L.A.) timing? Betts and Freeman have combined for only one hit thus far in the series.
Zac Gallen, Elevated Fastball (ball) and Knuckle Curve (backwards K), Individual Pitches + Overlay
Why you might take the Knuckle Curve. pic.twitter.com/jy9NpCGFNN
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 10, 2023
The Dodgers had a chance to come back in the middle innings, as Gallen exited and Arizona manager Torey Lovullo navigated through middle relief to bridge the gap to Kevin Ginkel and Paul Sewald. If you want to feel the swirl of cosmic timing that animates postseason games, zoom in on the highest-leverage at-bat of Game 2, which pitted Dodgers middle infielder Kolten Wong against D-backs reliever Ryan Thompson.
In the bottom of the sixth, Wong pinch-hit for Miguel Rojas with the bases loaded. He joined the Dodgers organization Aug. 9 after spending a brutal few months with the Seattle Mariners, batting .165 in 67 games, losing any hold on playing time and eventually getting released. He didn’t appear with the Dodgers’ major-league club until September, but once he did, he batted .300 in limited time.
Thompson, a former staple of the Tampa Bay Rays’ relief corps, was also summarily released in the midst of a rocky performance this season. After a 6.11 ERA with Tampa, Thompson turned in a 0.69 mark with Arizona in the regular season and earned Lovullo’s trust for playoff duties.
On this occasion, the sidearming right-hander got Wong to ground out, then stymied the top of the Dodgers’ order in the next inning by inducing a double-play ball from Freeman and striking out Will Smith.
After six long months of baseball games that leave us overconfident about our impressions of a team or a player, the playoffs are a wake-up call about just how difficult it is to get an out, a hit or a win at the highest levels of competition. For the upstart Diamondbacks, who lost four games in a row to close the season and toppled to the No. 6 seed, that has always seemed like a feature.
“Anyone who has been here before knows that when that first pitch was thrown in Milwaukee, it is 0-0, everyone’s ERA and batting average is 0, and you get a fresh start,” said Sewald, the Arizona closer, “and we just capitalized on every opportunity so far in the first four.”
To the Dodgers and the Los Angeles crowd that just watched the latest edition of their perennial juggernaut stumble to the brink of another early October exit, the postseason’s inherent clean slate is no doubt starting to feel like a bug and a hindrance. Heading to Arizona down 0-2, though, the favorites have a chance to take advantage of October’s immediacy.
They will send the veteran Lance Lynn to the mound looking to save or at least prolong their season. Lynn, 36, posted a career-worst 5.73 ERA and allowed a staggering 44 home runs in 2023. He’ll face off with Brandon Pfaadt, an acclaimed 24-year-old rookie who labored to a 5.72 ERA in his first MLB season.
On Wednesday in Phoenix, there will be plenty to prove, plenty to play for. And their track records won’t have any say in the matter.