Baseball is, thankfully, nothing like arm wrestling. It’s not a simple measure of brute strength. The same two competitors can square off over and over, and they have to be sharp each time if they hope to prevail. It’s a new game, with enough complexity to continuously present new demands and new contours, every time two teams step onto a diamond.
By tale of the tape, by whatever hypothetical version of baseball that is like arm wrestling, the 2023 Los Angeles Dodgers would beat the 2023 Arizona Diamondbacks. They won 100 games to the D-backs’ 84. They employ two of the five best players in the National League in Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman. Even amid a wave of pitching injuries, the Dodgers prevented runs more effectively than Arizona down the stretch, in the second half, whenever. They beat these Diamondbacks in the season series 8-5, including in all five games played after April. Across the 162 games of MLB’s rigorous regular season, the Dodgers were better.
In the current playoff format, that strength wins the Dodgers a bye round — the D-backs had to defeat the Milwaukee Brewers just to reach this matchup — and favorable conditions, including more games played on their home field. It does not, and really cannot, win them anything once the first pitch of the series is thrown.
The Diamondbacks earned their surprise trip to the NLCS
To advance beyond the NLDS, to maintain the hope of gilding an era of dominance with a second World Series crown to add to the 2020 championship, the Dodgers knew the assignment: Manifest their demonstrated superiority three times in up to five chances.
They couldn’t do it. In this series, they couldn’t do it for three innings, much less three games.
Fast, aggressive and opportunistic, the Diamondbacks thoroughly whipped the Dodgers, both exploiting their weakness (lack of surefire starting pitching) and neutralizing their strength (the two MVP contenders). Arizona scored 13 runs on Los Angeles starters Clayton Kershaw, Bobby Miller and Lance Lynn in the span of 14 outs. Diamondbacks pitchers held Betts and Freeman to three walks and one measly infield hit.
Arizona’s best player, rookie outfielder Corbin Carroll, was on base almost constantly. The top of the order provided thump in an environment that demands it, most memorably whacking an MLB-record four homers in one decisive inning in Wednesday’s Game 3. The Diamondbacks’ starting pitchers — Merrill Kelly, Zac Gallen and Brandon Pfaadt — covered 16 innings and allowed only two runs. Their bullpen arms and role players came through on a big stage.
Torey Lovullo’s burgeoning team left no doubt this week. They deserved to win this series, a truth Dodgers manager Dave Roberts readily acknowledged after the sweep.
“They outplayed us,” Roberts said, “and there’s no other spin to it.”
The D-backs deserve the chance to try to shock the next team that, by all indications, should overpower them. And they will get to do that starting Monday in the NLCS.
And the Dodgers’ loss isn’t on the MLB postseason format
What the Dodgers deserve — or deserved — from this season is a thornier subject.
Certainly, they deserved to lose to the Diamondbacks. This sort of total team no-show probably would’ve produced similarly swift defeat against the Brewers, the Phillies or, frankly, a 64-win team, if that were an option.
Hand-wringing about MLB’s postseason format began before the Dodgers even lost Game 2. The most significant existential friction — now that we can’t bog down conversations by fretting over slow games and a lack of stolen bases — centers on the layoff that top seeds get between Game 162 and the Division Series. In the 12-team format that took effect last season, the two best division winners in each league get a bye through the wild-card series and five days off between games. The worry, in short, is that the best teams are being disadvantaged by this.
I understand the concern, the disorientation that comes with wiping 100-win teams off the board after obsessing over them for six months. All else being equal, I’d prefer to see the regular season as a linear, useful prelude to the postseason, instead of a long-winded setup for a dice game. But scouring the iffy results from apparent juggernauts over the past two seasons gives these latest October flops a benefit of the doubt borne only out of proximity to change.
In reality, the race from final standings to immortalized champion has been a helter-skelter affair ever since the ALCS and NLCS sprang forth in 1969. Adding more teams since then has added more chances for surprises and seeming injustices, but the concept hasn’t changed. The World Series isn’t necessarily won by the very best baseball team. It’s won by the baseball team that’s good enough to make the tournament and then emerge from the compelling, dramatic scrum. This whole procession of challenges has never been a secret.
So the Dodgers are out. Again. It’s their second straight unceremonious exit at the hands of supposedly lesser division rivals. And the record books will tell you it’s their third straight year bowing out to a team they bested by 16 regular-season wins or more, including the 2021 Braves, an 88-win team. Yet I doubt anyone is worried today about that loss to an Atlanta team that has been elite ever since. If the Diamondbacks win 90-plus games for the next four years and routinely compete in October, will this NLDS loss become acceptable?
Reconciling the thrust of a long season with the short, chaotic sprint of the playoffs can be jarring, but dreaming up ways to legislate that out of the game is not very productive (or realistic, given the cold, hard cash associated with having more teams in the playoffs). Besides, give it a few more years, and this seemingly sparse, brutal environment will fill itself in with the greenery of context and history.
The Dodgers have now made the playoffs in 11 straight seasons, the third-longest streak in MLB history. You don’t need a doctorate in baseball history to recall that the club with the longest streak — the 1991-2005 Braves — won only a single World Series, in a shortened season, much like these current Dodgers. From 2000 to 2005, the Bobby Cox-era Braves lost in the NLDS, then the postseason’s first round, in five of six tries.
Undoubtedly, Dodgers fans are also aware that the Houston Astros, over in the American League, have now reached both the playoffs and at least the ALCS in seven straight seasons, despite a few more stressful journeys to make the dance.
Getting to the playoffs is one game. Winning in the playoffs is a different — and admittedly flightier — game. The Dodgers are masters of the first game, but their stumbles in the second game don’t discredit it or dim its long-running appeal.