Opinion: As Dodgers dig another playoff hole, ghosts of October past lurk again

ARLINGTON, Texas — It’s happening again.

The Los Angeles Dodgers’ championship drought, going on 32 years now, only seems to grow more frustrating, more diabolical, perhaps laughable if you enjoy gallows humor, with each passing year.

We’ve evoked Sisyphus and dissected the failings of The Great Kershaw and pondered why MVP-caliber players turn to dust come October, but the concept remains the same.

And it almost seems like the greater the Dodgers are, the sketchier they become in the playoffs.

This, by golly, this was to be the year: Mookie Betts joined Cody Bellinger to form a stunningly athletic MVP duo in the outfield. Pushing into his mid-30s, Clayton Kershaw unearthed the bite in his slider and looked better than he had in a couple years.

A star-crossed bullpen added a fearless and lovable and just-crazy-enough Brusdar Graterol who, for all his whimsy, also happens to tote a 101-mph sinker.

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Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulls starting pitcher Tony Gonsolin (left) during the fifth inning against the Atlanta Braves in Game 2 of the NLCS. (Photo: Jerome Miron, USA TODAY Sports)

Yet for all the enhancements and determination and their .717 60-game winning percentage, , they’re back to the abyss: Trailing the Atlanta Braves 2-0 in this National League Championship Series, manager Dave Roberts defending bullpen button-pushing that blew up the mainframe, a gaggle of All-Star hitters having to answer for punchless playoff performances.

Wednesday evening at sundown, they’ll send Julio Urias to the mound for a must-win Game 3, the club tasked with pushing away the why-us thoughts and grasping the fact they could quite easily get back in this series.

And surely, fighting off the questions roiling them from within: Why?

Is it the players?

Seems unlikely. Dodger fans are aghast, somewhat understandably, at a core that somehow can win eight consecutive division titles but never parlay that into a championship. That somehow Cody Bellinger’s West Coast chill that plays so well over 162 games could somehow translate into a disappearing act into a disappearing act into the ninth inning of Game 2. Or that Max Muncy’s three-true outcomes game that adds up to All-Star seasons makes him vulnerable to elite postseason pitching, such as a 3-for-21, homerless skid to start this October.

When the Braves tried to steal some rest for their bullpen with a 7-0 lead in Game 2, the Dodgers awakened, with Corey Seager slamming a three-run homer and RBI double. Muncy finally hit a playoff homer that forced the Braves to summon closer Mark Melancon, and Bellinger struck the fear of CodyLove into all of Georgia with an RBI triple that brought the tying run to third.

No, these guys care, and compete, and burn to win a championship, and are objectively good players.

Is it the manager?

Roberts’ managerial foibles stretch back to 2017, with a quick hook on Rich Hill in Game 2 of the World Series that stretched closer Kenley Jansen too thin, ultimately, for a two-inning save attempt that let the Houston Astros back into the series. A year later, another abrupt yanking of Hill in Game 4 of the Series against Boston led to more angst.

Now, in consecutive years, the deployment, or lack thereof, of lefty reliever Adam Kolarek sticks in the craw.

Nobody will soon forget the consecutive homers Kershaw, asked to cover one-plus innings in relief, gave up to Washington’s Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon in the decisive Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS – never mind that Kolarek had tied up Soto badly all series.

In Tuesday’s Game 2, Roberts was faced with another hurdle, the three-batter reliever minimum, when rookie starter Tony Gonsolin ran out of gas in the fifth inning. It was a no-win scenario: Bring in Kolarek to face the lefty-hitting Freddie Freeman, the NL MVP, which would force him to face righty Marcell Ozuna, who has scorched seemingly every ball this October.

Or, bring in a right-hander, cross your fingers against Freeman and hope he can take down Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud.

Roberts opted for Pedro Baez, and it went horribly. Freeman rolled a single to the opposite field and the painfully deliberate Baez suddenly shriveled. He issued consecutive walks, one that drove in a run, before Ozzie Albies scorched a line drive deep to center for a sacrifice fly.

Just like that, 2-0 became 6-0.

Roberts said he trusted Baez didn’t prefer Kolarek in such a high-leverage spot, though the lefty ultimately gave up the game-deciding homer in a far less advantageous position, to the switch-hitting Albies after Seager’s three-run homer cut the Braves’ lead to 7-3.

Hey, managing in the postseason is thankless, and the oft-criticized Roberts is only operating with the players and information and expectations bestowed by the front office.

Which brings us to another question: Is it the mentality?

The Dodgers are the envy of baseball, with the best player acquisition and development apparatus this side of Tampa Bay. Yet it’s not too harsh to wonder if they outthink themselves.

In this pandemic season, it’s unfair to be overly critical of any organization. Right now, the Dodgers are missing David Price, who understandably chose to opt out of the season. When Kershaw reported back spasms and pushed his Game 2 start to Game 4, it thinned the ranks further.

But the Dodgers have enough arms: Walker Buehler and Kershaw and a 101-mph-throwing freak in Dustin May and the now battle-tested Urias and suddenly here’s Gonsolin, with a nasty fastball-slider combo who they were clearly giddy to unwrap in October.

They’ve known for months Price wouldn’t be around. And have chosen to use May as a jack-of-all-trades out of the bullpen rather than build him up, hand him the ball and say, "Every Game 3 belongs to you."

Perhaps that wouldn’t have been the move. Maybe the high-leverage innings May gobbled up against San Diego were more important than a defined role. But suddenly, with every game a must-win, they are going to have to piecemeal a Game 3 and a Game 5, with Kershaw presumably ready to roll in Game 4.

It’s a choice, to be sure, and it’s conceivably a viable option. And October drive-by fans may note, Hey, it’s working for the Rays, so why not the Dodgers?

But the Dodgers lack the unending parade of reliable power arms that pushed the Rays to within a game of the World Series. They still have the most talent of any club left standing.

Yet somehow, be it game-planning or execution, they’ve once again gotten in their own way. Now, they must win four of the next five, though they will attempt to do so largely against the underbelly of an Atlanta staff that’s yet to be stretched this October.

The Dodgers aren’t dead yet. But the usual talking points are alive and well, even before the chill of a very long winter arrives.

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