Las Vegas book makers, MLB analysts, and countless baseball fans had the 2014 Los Angeles Dodgers going to the World Series, and they had good reason to bet that way. The Dodgers featured the best pitcher on earth, a balanced lineup, the NL’s second-best record, and the deepest starting rotation heading into the postseason. After a quick exit in four games to the St. Louis Cardinals, it’s time to take a look at how the Dodgers fizzled out so abruptly in the playoffs.
Biggest strength turned to weakness
Clayton Kershaw’s season for the ages (21-3, 1.77 ERA) ended in a completely unexpected flameout in the National League Division Series. In two starts, Kershaw posted an 0-2 record with a 7.82 ERA (11 ER in 12.2 IP). Kershaw may very well win the National League MVP Award along with his virtually guranteed NL Cy Young Award, voted on at the close of the regular season, but he was nowhere near the ace L.A. needed when it counted the most. L.A. has every right to be stunned by Kershaw’s performance, even if it mirrors the end to the Dodgers’ 2013 season. Kershaw was next to unbeatable this season.
Then again, the emotional drain of postseason starts has affected star pitchers in the past, which highlights the need for an exceptional bullpen in the playoffs. The Dodgers simply don’t have a bullpen worth trusting. In Game One, Don Mattingly watched the Dodgers’ 6-1 lead vanish before pulling his starter. By Game Three, Mattingly turned to (of all pitchers) Scott Elbert in a 1-1 tie late in the game. Elbert, who had made just seven appearances for L.A. during the regular season, took the loss and put the Dodgers in a 2-1 series deficit.
In other words, anyone looking for scapegoats may first turn to Dodgers G.M. Ned Colletti, the architect of the Dodgers that had an opening day payroll of $235 million.
Bullpen and personnel woes
On top of the poorly constructed bullpen, Mattingly saw some of his best offensive performers wither under the bright lights of the postseason. The dynamic Yasiel Puig stuck out in eight of his last nine at-bats of the NLDS, which led to his benching in the fourth and final game of the series. Puig’s inability to move Dee Gordon (on second with none out) in the first inning earlier in the series likely added to Mattingly’s decision.
The short division series are unforgiving to teams that lose two starts from their ace and fail to convert runners in the classic “get ‘em over, get ‘em in” system of plating baserunners. In both respects, the Dodgers had no business advancing to the league championships or even pushing the Cardinals to a decisive fifth game.
As the Giants showed in their quick dispatch of the heavily favored Washington Nationals, postseason poise and experience also go a long way. The epic performance by Kershaw in the regular season and the $235 million payroll meant nothing to a clutch Cardinals club that has thrived in the postseason. L.A. needs a stronger bullpen to go deep into the postseason in the future, and once again they find themselves hoping the maturation of Yasiel Puig happens at an accelerated pace.