By Jon Weisman
One of these years, it wasn’t going to happen. One of these years, the National League West title would go to someone else.
Three months ago, 2016 looked dangerously like it would be that year. The Dodgers began the season in pursuit of their fourth straight division championship, but on June 26, eight games down in the division, one ace down on the disabled list — it was a feeding frenzy for those looking to bury Los Angeles.
Exactly three months later, on September 26, the Dodgers will wake up not eight games down in the NL West, but eight games up — and playoff bound.
Instead of surrendering with Clayton Kershaw out, the Dodgers found a deep resolve. Not coincidentally, it came from a deep roster.
“We talked a lot at Spring Training about depth in the organization,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said, in the bombastic clubhouse after today’s clinching victory over Colorado. “It wasn’t something that we were necessarily eager to showcase, as early as we did and as often as we did. But it’s an incredible organization. The number of fingerprints on this division title spans so many different players and so many different departments in our organization. So many people can be proud of it.
While this year’s deficit didn’t quite match those they faced in their 2013 and 2014 comebacks, it was plenty big. Above all, though, the summer of 2016 will forever stand out for the way the Dodgers rallied without the man who defined their team.
“I really think (it began to come together) a couple of days after Kersh went down,” general manager Farhan Zaidi said. “You lose the best player in the game, you’re going to spend some time feeling sorry for yourselves. But it’s all a matter of how you pick yourself up from that moment.”
After a dim start offensively, the Dodgers became power drivers — four players with at least 24 homers, eight in double figures. The team’s .437 slugging percentage since the All-Star Break is a Los Angeles record. They’ve even gotten 27 homers out of their catcher, Yasmani Grandal.
They are a team of firemen. Dodger relievers have a WHIP of 1.13 and a 3.1 strikeout-walk ratio — the best in the NL — while setting a club record for innings pitched.
They are a team with veteran leadership, epitomized by Adrían González, Howie Kendrick, Justin Turner and Roy Campanella Award winner Chase Utley.
And they are a team of kids. Are they ever? Led by Corey Seager and Joc Pederson, with strong supporting roles from Kenta Maeda (admittedly, on the experienced side of rookiedom), Ross Stripling, Julio Urías, Andrew Toles, Grant Dayton and more — don’t forget Trayce Thompson’s 13 homers — the Dodgers turned their season into an instant integrated youth movement.
How could a team be all these things at once? By building up lines and lines of defense against decline. Depth didn’t take a holiday for the Dodgers this year. Depth was put to work, again and again. If one door was shut, there was never another the Dodgers couldn’t bust open.
“If we only had to use 25 guys and had no injuries, that would have been fine, too,” Zaidi said. “If it wasn’t for these guys stepping up and performing, what does depth mean?
“I just credit the players, the coaching staff and the coaching staff down in Triple-A that had a lot of these guys, who hit the ground running.”
So don’t let anyone try to fool you that the Dodgers owe their latest title to San Francisco’s second-half collapse.
Before July, when the Giants were near or at the top of the Majors in wins, the Dodgers lurked, playing solidly above .500 — with Kershaw, who was on the path to a season for the ages, leading the way.
But even then, despite what others we’re saying, Kershaw knew he could never do it all by himself.
“It’s not about one guy,” he said.
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Dave Roberts was also looking for something more. Something extra.
“It wasn’t there at the start,” Roberts said. “But the players bought in. … It was a work in progress all year long, and still we’re trying to get better.”
Though the Giants’ meltdown explains the size of the Dodgers’ lead, in no way did Los Angeles back into the playoffs. From Kershaw’s trip to the disabled list with a disk herniation, through today’s clinching victory, the Dodgers have gone 49-30, only one game behind the league-leading Cubs over the same time period.
And now, Kershaw is back.
“Make no mistake, these last couple of weeks, having him back, have been a huge boost to us, too,” Zaidi said. “Going through that, having guys step up and having him at the front of the rotation, it’s a pretty exciting feeling for us.”
If they can get past the Washington Nationals in the National League Division Series, the Cubs are the team the Dodgers are most likely to face in the National League Championship Series — with the World Series as the ever-present goal.
“Everyone here is talking about three more celebrations,” Friedman said.
So here we are again, on the precipice of the postseason. Each of the past three years, the Dodgers have entered October, dreaming of a parade, only to be shooed out a side street.
What about 2016? Nobody knows anything, except this …
One of these years, it’s going to happen.