Yu-phoria: Adding Darvish Has Dodgers Seeking History and an End to World Series Drought
- Los Angeles hasn't been in the Fall Classic since 1988, but before it reaches October it first has a chance to set a major league record for wins in a season.
When Dodgers reliever Grant Dayton fell asleep on the team plane as it made its way from Los Angeles to Atlanta on July 31, his club was the best in all of baseball. When he woke up a few hours later, it had improbably gotten even better.
“I open my eyes, take out my phone, and see that we got Yu Darvish,” Dayton says. “I looked around like, ‘We got Darvish? Who did we give up? Did I get traded?’”
Dayton learned that, yes, Los Angeles had picked up the four-time All-Star righthander from the Rangers, and, no, he would not immediately be put on a flight to Texas in exchange. He and his teammates were now left with the exciting realization that one of the game’s top pitchers would be joining their playoff push as they sought to end a World Series drought now in its 29th year. The Dodgers were going all in.
“It’s like, man, when we thought we couldn’t get any better, we just did,” says utilityman Kiké Hernandez.
But even had the trade deadline come and gone without the likes of Darvish joining them, the players say they would not have been disappointed. After all, as they touched down in Georgia that afternoon, they were the owners of MLB's best record (74–31), highest winning percentage (.705) and a Secretariat-like lead (14 games) in the National League West. On pace to win 114 games even before adding Darvish to the fold, Los Angeles was already great. Upping the ante on the rest of the league was, to a degree, not even necessary, though it was appreciated.
“If you can get a Ferrari,” Dayton says, “then you should get a Ferrari.”
This is a level beyond putting a new supercar in a garage already full of luxury imports, though. The Dodgers getting Darvish is like Jeff Bezos winning the Powerball. Already blessed with a deep and talented roster, they are now that much stronger and that much more frightening for their opponents—a team with no visible weak point, one that has spent the last two months bludgeoning everyone in its path.
All summer long Los Angeles has been making clear that it is a level above the rest of the major leagues. After a May 16 loss to the Giants left them four games over .500 and three games behind Colorado in the division, the Dodgers have gone a ridiculous 57–14, an .802 winning percentage that would translate to a staggering 130 victories over a full season. On Sunday, they finished a three-game sweep of the Mets at Citi Field in which they allowed four runs over 27 innings and scored 21. Darvish made his debut on Friday and struck out 10 over seven scoreless innings in a 6-0 win. The next night, Los Angeles trailed 3–0 through five but scored in each of the final four innings to post a 7–4 win. And on Sunday, southpaw Hyun-jin Ryu tossed seven scoreless innings of his own, allowing only one hit and no walks while striking out eight in an 8–0 rout. Not bad for a pitcher who is arguably seventh on the team’s rotation depth chart.
Darvish isn't the only player new to the team this year to have an immediate impact. Cody Bellinger, a 22-year-old rookie outfielder, debuted on April 25 and has hit 32 homers, the second highest total in the National League, as he runs away with the Rookie of the Year award. Bellinger will follow last year's winner, shortstop Corey Seager, who at 23 has improved on his 2016 performance to post a .932 OPS with 19 home runs this season.
Then there are the holdovers. Third baseman Justin Turner (four years, $64 million) and closer Kenley Jansen (five years, $80 million) were both retained after reaching free agency a year ago and made the All-Star team this year. Turner, who was a bench player and out of a job after the Mets non-tendered him following the 2013 season, leads the NL in hitting (.343) and OBP (.443) and is a legitimate MVP contender. Jansen, their minor-league-catcher-turned-untouchable closer, has walked only five men all season while striking out 75 and converting all but one of his 29 save chances.
L.A. is even finding stars where it least expects them. Chris Taylor, their starting leftfielder, entered the season carrying a career OPS+ of 70. This year he has doubled it, to 140—better than more established players like Justin Upton, Buster Posey and Andrew McCutchen, to name a few.
Perhaps no stat, though, better illustrates just how good the Dodgers are than this one: They lost Clayton Kershaw, the three-time NL Cy Young Award winner, to a back injury on July 24, and all they’ve done since then is go 11–1.
What manager Dave Roberts' team is doing is almost unheard of in the history of the sport. Saturday’s win over the Mets completed a 43–7 stretch of play—the best 50-game run by a team since the 1912 Giants, who went on to win 103 games (although they lost the World Series to the Red Sox). It has left Los Angeles within range of the major league record of 116 wins, set by the Cubs in 1906 and matched by the Mariners in 2001. A century’s worth of teams, including some of the greatest ever assembled, have not been this good for this long.
Of course, it is true that that kind of dominance is no guarantee of anything. None of those three teams mentioned above won the World Series. The Dodgers are certainly familiar with postseason disappointment, having failed to make the World Series despite having won four straight NL West titles. They haven't been to the Fall Classic since upsetting the Bash Brother A's in five games in 1988. Nevertheless, this will go down as one of the most astonishing stretches of dominance the sport has ever seen.
“It’s a collective effort, and that’s something that shouldn’t be missed,” adds starter Rich Hill. “There’ll be at some point an MVP of every team, but with this group, it could be anybody.”
That’s been the crux of the Dodgers’ brilliance: a team capable of winning in a multitude of ways. It’s a lineup that punishes opponents with power (ranking second in the NL with 163 home runs) but also with patience (a league best 452 walks). “Last year, it was homer after homer after homer, but solo homers don’t win games,” Hernandez says. “Walks, going first to third on a single—that’s what wins games.”
It’s also a pitching staff that leads the league in ERA (3.07), strikeouts (1,049) and fewest hits allowed (817). When Kershaw is healthy, Los Angeles will pair him with Darvish for a 1–2 punch as fearsome as any postseason entrant will be able to offer.
That's what getting Darvish was all about. Los Angeles didn't need him for August and September. But they will when October arrives. Being good wasn’t good enough. The best team in baseball saw the chance to get better and took it, and that has to be the kind of thing that keeps opposing managers up all night. But the Dodgers can sleep peacefully, knowing that there isn’t a team on earth right now that can touch them.
“We feel like we’re going to go out there and win every single game,” Hernandez says.
He might just be right.