On October 10, 2008, a 20-year-old rookie left-hander named Clayton Kershaw threw 1 2/3 scoreless innings of relief in Game 2 of the NLCS. It was Kershaw’s first-ever taste of playoff action, in the Dodgers’ first trip to the NLCS since their title-winning campaign in 1988.
The Dodgers lost that game, and the series, and then went on to lose three more NLDSs, three NLCSs, and two World Series. Kershaw’s playoff debut is so far in the past that it came against the Phillies; in case that isn’t context enough, that 2008 Dodgers roster featured Manny Ramírez, Jeff Kent, Nomar Garciaparra, and Greg Maddux. Eventually, that baby-faced reliever grew into the best pitcher of his generation and the all-time postseason strikeout leader.
But nothing beside remains. Over the past 13 seasons, Kershaw’s Dodgers have gone through two ownership groups, two front-office regimes, three managers, and 298 different players.
And they’ve never been this close to a title.
After a 4-2 win in Game 5 of the World Series, the Dodgers head into the final off day of the season holding two opportunities to close out the pesky Rays, a luxury they didn’t have in either 2017 or 2018. On both of those occasions, the Dodgers faced opponents with deep lineups—and, as an investigation this past offseason revealed, an illicit sign-stealing system. Accordingly, the Dodgers trailed most of the way in both series.
Not this time. The Dodgers enter Game 6 of the World Series up 3-2, a position 60 MLB teams have faced in a best-of-seven series; two-thirds of those have gone on to win. That list includes the first championship team in franchise history, the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, and all four Dodgers teams to have faced such a situation since then.
In order to get to this point, the Dodgers have cast off a series of back-riding monkeys. Kershaw, the eternally snakebitten pitcher, has turned in the best postseason of his career, winning four of his five starts, including two fantastic outings in the World Series. Corey Seager, who hit .195/.271/.336 in his first 34 postseason games over five years, has caught fire since the NLDS, hitting .389/.476/.852 in his past 14 games. Dustin May snapped a streak of three straight awful appearances by delivering 1 2/3 key scoreless innings in relief of Kershaw on Sunday night. And a team that’s spent the past decade floating from playoff failure to playoff failure went down 2-0 and 3-1 in the NLCS—and looked disengaged in doing so—but fought back to take the series.
Any team that’s as good as the Dodgers have been, for as long as they’ve been good, either wins a title or ends up being defined by its inability to do so. Four straight seasons of dominant offense from the Buffalo Bills have since been reduced to one pushed field goal. Lionel Messi lit the world of soccer on fire for 15 years, but his Argentina teams ended up with only a lifelong grudge against Gonzalo Higuaín to show for it. Alex Ovechkin has won three MVP awards and established a legacy as the greatest goal scorer in hockey history, but until he got his name on the Stanley Cup in his 13th NHL season, it didn’t seem to matter how frequently he appeared in the record books.
Our cultural fixation on #RINGZ stems from a lack of appreciation for the basic math of a knockout sports tournament, such as the MLB playoffs. In a given season, there is only one championship available, no matter how many great teams or players there are to pursue it. A fifth-grade understanding of probability is all it takes to realize that an MLB team that makes it to the division series has about one chance in eight of winning the World Series and that a random franchise in a 30-team league will win the World Series once every 30 years. This year was the Dodgers’ eighth trip to the NLDS in as many years and marks 32 years since their last World Series victory.
Maybe it’s just their turn. Or maybe this project just had to succeed sooner or later. Since 2012, the Dodgers have been owned by Guggenheim Baseball Management, one of the richest ownership groups in the sport, and they’ve leveraged that financial might to build an on-field powerhouse in an age when even other big-market teams are cutting back. They were able to pick up Mookie Betts from the Red Sox in a salary-dump trade, then sign him to the second-richest contract extension in baseball history. Over the past decade they’ve thrown money at big-name free agents like Zack Greinke, kept important pieces like Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, and Justin Turner from leaving on the open market themselves, and threw $42 million at Yasiel Puig based on one scouting session.
In the meantime the Dodgers have sustained what might be baseball’s best homegrown talent pipeline for 15 years and counting. Kershaw was just one of a class of prospects that hit big in the late 2000s, along with Matt Kemp and Russell Martin. And over the years, the Dodgers have shepherded Seager, Jansen, Cody Bellinger, Julio Urías, Walker Buehler, and countless others through the minors. That pipeline gave the Dodgers the freedom to let Yasmani Grandal, one of the best catchers in the world, leave as a free agent after the 2018 season and replace him with Will Smith, who might be even better. It allowed L.A. to trade for Betts and Manny Machado without scratching the surface of its minor league system.
As if that weren’t enough, the Dodgers have found stars in between the couch cushions. Turner, Max Muncy, and Chris Taylor had substantial track records of not being able to hit big-league pitching before they exploded in L.A. Jansen was a minor league catcher who became a closer with more than 300 career saves. Tony Gonsolin was a ninth-round pick who could win NL Rookie of the Year this year. Even the likes of Bellinger and Buehler are outperforming their most optimistic projections as prospects.
Even in an environment as random and unforgiving as the MLB playoffs, a team with this many resources and this much talent can only fail so many times in a row. The Dodgers have been bashing an expertly designed, billion-dollar machine against the wall of playoff bullshit since the likes of May, Gavin Lux, and Brusdar Graterol were in grade school and Kershaw barely had to shave. Is it just a matter of time before that machine breaks through? We’re one game from finding out.