A baseball season goes where it goes, beyond prediction, expectation. Imagine if I had I told you in spring training that the playoff center fielders for the top seeds would be Chris Taylor and Jason Kipnis.
Taylor was a utility player who never had played the outfield professionally. Kipnis was the entrenched second baseman of the defending AL champions who last played the outfield in college.
Yet, in the waning days of the season, the Indians are experimenting with Kipnis in center, owing to injury and also that Jose Ramirez has assembled an MVP candidacy at second in place of Kipnis.
The Dodgers are no longer experimenting. Taylor is their center fielder. What is amazing is just how uncertain so much else is around this club so close to the playoffs.
Los Angeles essentially needed the season to end a month ago and its players preserved in bubble-wrap. Because back in the good old days — through three weeks in August — the Dodgers were drawing comparisons to the best teams in history.
Even in clinching the NL West Friday night, the Dodgers had won just seven of their last 27 games. Studies show little correlation between how a team plays in September and how they perform in the playoffs. You might remember, for example, that the 2000 Yankees closed 3-15 and won the World Series and the 2006 Cardinals lost 14 of 22 to end the year and won it all.
What stands out, though, for the Dodgers is two-fold:
1. Just how much pressure is going to be on them. Those Yankee teams always had an intense burden, but by 2000 the core group had the muscle memory of winning three times in the previous four years. That group handled big games expertly because there was such a faith in each other that no one player over-stressed that success fell upon him.
Which makes me wonder about Clayton Kershaw, who will get Game 1 of a Division Series. The lefty has been good, not great since returning from another back injury — he allowed his first career grand slam against the Phillies last week. Kershaw is an historically great pitcher missing one item to fortify his legacy: a dominant postseason a la Madison Bumgarner in 2014.
Kershaw is wound tightly, and should he not pitch well in Dodger Stadium on Oct. 6 and L.A. loses, well, now shift the burden to likely Game 2 starter Yu Darvish, who also does not seem completely capable of walling himself off from the noise around him.
And remember the whole team is going to be operating with a staggering expectations because 1) Just a month ago Sports Illustrated had the Dodgers on its cover asking if its was the best team ever. 2) The organization has not won since 1988. That is not 1908 like the Cubs last year or 1948 like the Indians will tote into the playoffs this year, but 3) When you have spent billions and billions chasing that goal, especially the past five years when Los Angeles usurped the Yanks as the No. 1 payroll team in the sport, well those great Yankees teams know how heavy those dollar signs can be.
2. For a team that spent most of five months cruising, the Dodgers enter the final week of the season with lots of questions about how they are lining up for the postseason.
They are not alone obviously. The Indians are seeing if Kipnis indeed can handle center field. The Nationals are racing the clock to see if they can get Bryce Harper healthy and fully ready for their Division Series. The Astros are uncertain if Lance McCullers will be part of their October rotation. The Cubs are wondering about Jon Lester’s dip in performance. The Yanks would love to finish off their strong bullpen by getting Adam Warren back.
But for sheer volume of uncertainty and mystery, the Dodgers win. The depth of choices that so infused their success for much of the season has become often now a bunch of worrisome choices.
This is particularly true in the bullpen. Pedro Baez, who served as a primary set-up man to Kenley Jansen for much of this season, pretty much has pitched himself off the postseason roster. His performance was so horrible of late that manager Dave Roberts actually is having him sit with him in the dugout, rather than in the pen, to get a mental break.
But Baez is not alone. Aside from the great Jansen, who Roberts recently asked to get more than three outs twice to secure wins in these troubled times, there has been enough poor performance to leave unsure what the chain will be from starters to Jansen. Kenta Maeda, for example, is going to get more bullpen reps to see what he can do.
In addition, Joc Pederson and Adrian Gonzalez also probably have played themselves off the postseason roster. Roberts is going to have to decide whether to go with the performing, but brittle, Andre Ethier in left or Curtis Granderson. Since being obtained from the Mets, Granderson had six homers, but he also had just six other hits and was batting .125.
The slump of catcher Yasmani Grandal means the Dodgers are at least contemplating going with Austin Barnes. In addition, Corey Seager fouled a ball off his ankle on Wednesday and Justin Turner took a pitch off his right thumb Thursday . In both cases, the X-rays were negative, but it did knock their dynamic left side of the infield out for a few games.
They should be fine for the playoffs and, perhaps, these Dodgers will be, too. Seager and Turner are elite players and so are Jansen, Kershaw, Darvish and Cody Bellinger — and in this season, you can add Taylor and Alex Wood. Maybe the last month is merely a hiccup, a hill that a championship team must overcome.
But the pressure is about to intensify for Kershaw and the Dodgers, who more than any other team this October will live by the extremes — championship or misery.