The 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers have all the makings of a Dean Koontz, Halloween thriller. The horrors of postseasons past have thickened the suspense of the World Series present.
But the future is often a silver lining in the typical Koontz plot. He regarded a scar as “redemption inscribed in the flesh, a memorial to something endured, to something lost.”
And a Redeem Season would be the best kind of Dream Season for the long-suffering Dodgers.
They’ve endured plenty of playoff scarring since their last World Series championship of 1988. They’ve come up short despite winning the National League West Division title every year since 2015 and advancing to the playoffs every season since 2013.
There are signs, however, that eight-straight postseasons will be enough for them to finally get over the hump. Three of their biggest playoff goats have reason to gloat entering today’s Game 5 of the October Classic.
1 — Cody Bellinger.
October has always ended in Halloween-level horror for the National League’s 2019 MVP. He batted just .169 in the 36 playoff games before this season. The 12 games in his two World Series have been particularly haunting: 5-for-44 for a .114 batting average.
But he’s had several impactful moments this October, with none bigger than last Sunday. His tie-breaking home run in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series propelled the Dodgers to their third World Series in the last four years.
Bellinger’s four homers in this season’s 15 playoff games are as many as he hit in his previous 36 postseason appearances. He learned from past failures, manager Dave Roberts observed.
“Cody is as talented as any player in baseball,” he said following Sunday’s dramatic, 4-3 win over the Atlanta Braves. “But I think this postseason has shown him: He’s really learned the value of controlling the strike zone, taking what they give you, trying to win pitches, and if there’s a walk in there, take the walk.
“If they make a mistake, you can still slug.”
Slug the ball, that is — not the forearms of teammates. He did that with leaping exuberance after Sunday’s dramatic homer — first with AJ Pollock and then again, more demonstrably, with Kiké Hernandez. The second of the two bashes dislocated his right shoulder.
“I had to go back into the trainer’s room and they popped it back in so I could go out and play defense,” Bellinger said later. “It kind of hurt.”
He made the proper adjustment after his next homer. His blast against Tampa Bay in Tuesday’s Game 1 of the World Series kick-started the Dodgers’ 8-3 victory, and he celebrated by toe-slapping a chorus line of his teammates.
“I’m going straight foot,” Bellinger said, “and it was pretty funny.”
2 — Clayton Kershaw:
The 13-year, veteran pitcher has already punched his ticket to Cooperstown with eight All-Star appearances, three Cy Young trophies, and the 2014 NL MVP Award. But he’d still like to check off the World Series box on his Hall of Fame application.
Kershaw owns a glossy 175-76 record and 2.43 earned run average during the regular season. Once the calendar turns to October, however, this Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Curse-shaw. He’d posted a record of just 9-11 and ERA of 4.33 in his 32 playoff appearances before this season.
His failures have also come at the worst of times, beginning with defeats in the decisive, NLCS Game 6 against St. Louis in 2013 and Chicago in 2016.
And when the Dodgers finally got to the World Series in 2017, he blew a four-run lead in Game 5 against Houston.
“Maybe one of these days I won’t fail, we won’t fail, and we’ll win one of these things,” Kershaw said at the time.
But that day didn’t come during the 2018 World Series when he lost both Games 1 and 5 against Boston.
Kershaw found no pain relief when Roberts summoned him out of the bullpen in the decisive Game 5 of last year’s NLDS against Washington. He blew the save by surrendering back-to-back home runs in a game the Dodgers would lose in extra innings.
But he hasn’t been the Fall Guy so far this October. He beat Milwaukee in his wild-card series appearance and San Diego during the NLDS. He then got over a big hump to start the World Series on Tuesday by pitching a six-inning gem against Tampa Bay, allowing just two hits and one run.
But Kershaw may be best measured by what he does on the mound today.
“When you’ve been working so long and so hard for one goal, and it’s getting closer and closer with each win, it’s harder not to think about the end game and what that might be like,” he admitted.
3 — Dave Roberts.
Kershaw’s failures belong partially to the Dodger manager, whose overuse of the ace lefthander in the playoffs has subjected him to more second-guessing than the brainiacs who inflated the Hindenburg with hydrogen.
Roberts was begging for a blowup when he pitched Kershaw out of the bullpen on short rest during last year’s NLDS.
But he’s managed his pitching staff much better this time around. That includes dismounting from his other warhorse, Kenley Jansen. The Dodgers’ all-time saves leader has slowed down in recent years. He allowed a game-tying homer which led to defeat in Game 2 of the 2017 World Series and blew two more saves in 2018 against Boston.
Jansen’s declining velocity has been coupled by recent delivery problems that rival those of the U.S. Postal Service.
But when it came time so close out the ninth inning of Sunday’s Game 7 against Atlanta, Roberts left Jansen in the bullpen and let Julio Urias pitch his third-straight, no-hit inning.
“It was his moment,” Roberts said.
And maybe it augurs that an even bigger moment is about to arrive for his team.