It’s a year of redemption for the Dodgers

Photo: Stacie Wheeler

No one thought the Dodgers would be back in the World Series for the second straight year in May when they were 10 games under .500. Corey Seager was lost for the year and underwent Tommy John surgery, Justin Turner missed the first 40 games with a broken wrist, Clayton Kershaw‘s fastball was lacking in zip and velocity, and Kenley Jansen had a 5.59 ERA and two blown saves within the first month of the season. The ominous sewage that spewed forth upon the field at Dodger Stadium during the final game of the Freeway Series seemed to foretell of a messy season that lay ahead.

And it was indeed messy and certainly not easy. Despite immense talent and depth, the Dodgers didn’t clinch their sixth consecutive NL West division title until Game 163. Unlike the year prior when they were virtual locks for the playoffs by mid-July, the 2018 Dodgers had to fight tooth and nail for their postseason berth this time around.

They got to this point by stepping up at all the right times. First, they swept the Giants in three games at AT&T Park, a lion’s den they have historically played poorly at, in the key final regular season series. That set up the division tiebreaker with a very competitive Rockies team who were hungry for their first division title in their franchise’s history. The Boys In Blue pulled it off in Game 163 behind 24-year old rookie right-hander Walker Buehler, who had only 9 1/3 innings under his belt at the major-league level in 2017.

In the postseason they beat a talented yet inexperienced Braves team in the NLDS to reach the NLCS. They would have swept them in three games if it wasn’t for a bad inning by Buehler and missed opportunities at the plate in Game 3. Missed opportunities was a common theme for the 2018 Dodgers. The NLCS matched them up with the Brewers, a tough opponent led by the soon-to-be NL MVP Christian Yelich. The series went seven games, because of course it did. With Game 7 of the 2017 World Series still feeling like a fresh flesh wound, the Dodgers battled their way to their second straight NL pennant. Big home runs from Justin Turner, Manny Machado, Cody Bellinger and Yasiel Puig were exclamation points to excellent pitching performances from both their starting squad and their surprisingly bulletproof bullpen.

Now the Dodgers and Red Sox, two storied franchises, will take on each other in the Fall Classic for the first time since 1916. The Dodgers have only won one game at Fenway Park since it opened in 1912. They’re looking for at least one more win in the Green Monster’s house this World Series.

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Individually, there were redemption stories that played out over the course of the season, intertwined into the overall fabric that made up this World Series-bound team.

The Dodgers wouldn’t be on their way to Boston right now if it weren’t for Matt Kemp‘s first half. Kemp wasn’t even supposed to actually play this year for the Dodgers. The winter trade with the Braves was a salary dump. No one could have predicted that Kemp would slash .310/.352/.522/.874 with 15 home runs and a 137 wRC+ in the first half with the Dodgers, his original team, earning him his first All-Star nod since 2012. Although Kemp faded in the second half, hitting .255 with a 97 wRC+, he was arguably the team’s MVP in the first part. His longtime teammate Andre Ethier was celebrated in retirement this year, but Kemp was still hitting bison blasts over the walls at Chavez Ravine in his 13th season.

Kershaw, who debuted with the Dodgers two years after Kemp, also fought through the narratives this year. His fastball was down about two miles an hour in 2018 compared to previous years, but his tenacity on the mound never wavered. While Buehler is the future ace of the Dodgers, Kershaw’s still the G.O.A.T. He remains a dominant starter, and his 2.73 ERA was still the fifth-best among NL starters with at least 100 innings. The postseason is where Kershaw’s legacy gets murky, but he has delivered this October so far. He put in one of his best starts of his career in the Dodgers’ 3-0 win over the Braves in Game 2 of the NLDS. He ran into a tough Brewers club in Game 1 of the NLCS, allowing five runs (four earned) on six hits in three frustrating innings. He bounced back in Game 5, pitching seven dominant innings against Milwaukee in the Dodgers’ 2-1 victory. Then he took the ball in the ninth inning of Game 7, striking out two and clinching a World Series berth for the Dodgers. The sting from World Series Game 7 last autumn perhaps dissipated a bit, at least momentarily.

The bullpen was perhaps the biggest redemption story of the year. When management failed to land any big arms during the offseason, forgoing on the expense of a Brandon Morrow, the bullpen seemed like a haphazard collection of arms. The biggest reason the Dodgers’ bullpen faltered at times was that Jansen, the Dodgers’ bullpen anchor, had a up and down year. He started the season off slowly, dealing with a hamstring injury in spring training. His velocity returned, and he pitched well for awhile until his heart condition recurred causing him to miss time in August. Jansen posted some of his worst numbers of his career this year, allowing a career-high 13 home runs with a 10.3 K/9 and 4.03 FIP in 71 2/3 innings. In September, he started getting back on track. By October, Jansen and the bullpen turned on their afterburners to dominate. Jansen hasn’t allowed only two hits and no runs with 10 strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings pitched so far this postseason. The bullpen, a glaring weakness of the team through a large chunk of the season with an ERA of over 4 in April, June, and August, has held opposing batters to a .180 average and have a collective 1.30 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings this postseason. Even Pedro Baez has been redeemed with 6 2/3 innings of shutout ball pitched this postseason.

Bellinger also made amends for himself in Game 7 with the big two-run homer after failing to find success offensively in the postseason the last two years (.190 average in 26 postseason games). Machado bunted and hustled his way to ward off the boos and the negativity surrounding him in the NLCS. Austin Barnes played his way back into a starting catching role after losing much of his playing time behind the plate to Yasmani Grandal this season. Chris Taylor might have led the NL in strikeouts, but his game-saving catch in Game 7 of the NLCS will certainly stick with us much longer.

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The ultimate redemption will be a Los Angeles Dodgers World Championship. They came as close as they could to securing a seventh franchise World Series victory last year, but the Astros instead came away with the elusive prize we have been waiting 30 years for. Kershaw has all the individual accolades a player can achieve, but the one he has yet to capture is a World Series ring.

It’s been six years since Puig made his Dodger debut. Since the Wild Horse was called up in 2013, the Dodgers have went on to reach the postseason six straight times. He’s single handedly changed the landscape of MLB one bat flip and lick at time. The final chapter has yet to be written in this year’s scorebook, but the characters have all been developed to the fullest. It’ll either be another heartbreaking ending or a triumphant and redeeming victory for a whole new generation of Dodgers fans to celebrate.

About Stacie Wheeler

Stacie Wheeler
Stacie Wheeler, born and raised in So Cal, has been writing about the Dodgers since 2010. She wrote daily as the co-editor of Lasorda's Lair for five long years, and she has also written for Dodgers Nation, Dodger Blue 1958 and The Hardball Times. She currently contributes to True Blue LA. Stacie graduated from the University Of Southern California with a bachelor's degree in Cinema-Television. You can also watch her videos on her YouTube channel, DishingUpTheDodgers.