Alexander: Dodgers suffer another October collapse

SAN DIEGO — At the risk of recency bias, this was the worst Dodgers collapse of them all.

But what was the worst part?

Was it the 111 victories, the best in club history and fourth best in major league history, basically swept into the dustbin?

Was it the blown 3-0 lead Saturday night, or the puzzling pitching decisions that helped facilitate the San Diego Padres’ 5-3 comeback win and will make Manager Dave Roberts the fan base’s punching bag for another long winter?

Or was it that it was the Padres? Little brother finally took down big brother – the smile that Padres controlling owner Peter Seidler flashed as he stepped onto the elevator after the game was priceless – and a fan base that hadn’t had much to cheer about in recent seasons not only packed Petco Park (helped by the Padres’ geofencing policy to keep tickets away from Dodger fans) but reveled in the Dodgers’ misery Friday and Saturday nights in the National League Division Series.

Dodger fans who are active on social media should brace themselves, because any contacts who are Padre fans will be insufferable for the foreseeable future.

Maybe this is the bottom line, as starting pitcher Tyler Anderson noted late Saturday night:

“It’s tough. I mean, you know, there’s 29 teams every year that kind of feel what we’re feeling right now, probably less that were kind of out of it early,” he said. “But 29 teams that at the end of the year have to say goodbye to everybody. And it’s kind of a sorrow, you know, a sad day, and there’s one team that doesn’t and gets to celebrate the end of the year.

“And we obviously were all hoping to be the one team that didn’t have it end this way.”

They were the favorites, having swept through the regular season – and, particularly, having won 14 of 19 games from the team that upended them this week. It’s the cruelty and at the same time the beauty of baseball. Three out of five, or in this case three out of four, overshadows 14 out of 19.

“We didn’t accomplish our goal,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “You know, there’s not really much more you can really say. You grind all year starting, all these guys in February and me in March (when he signed with the Dodgers after the lockout). This team, we had one goal in mind and it didn’t happen. So, just a lot of disappointment.

“I mean, all the sacrifices you make during the course of the season, leaving your family and doing all that, and you have one goal in mind. You get to that chance, to be able to reach that goal, and you come up short. It’s disappointment. I don’t know what another word is. It’s just disappointed. We had a really good team. We just didn’t get it done.”

Freeman had his disappointments in 11 seasons in Atlanta, before hitting the jackpot last fall – and disappointing his future Dodgers teammates along the way – with a team that got hot at exactly the right time.

This team, in contrast, got cold at exactly the wrong time. A club that seemed to have an unstoppable offense, with so many stars, so much talent and so much production, was 5 for 34 with runners in scoring position during the four-game series. That’s a .147 average. That won’t get it done anywhere, any time.

Yet they went to the bottom of the seventh inning Saturday with a 3-0 lead and nine outs to get to take this series back to Dodger Stadium for a fifth and deciding game on Sunday. Instead, it blew up in their faces before they got three of those precious outs, and again bullpen decisions were a factor, as they seemingly are every October. Even with the most dominant team in the game, gun-shy Dodger fans were probably right to worry going into the postseason.

Anderson gave the Dodgers five strong innings and 86 pitches, and said he “could have thrown 150 pitches if I were allowed to.” Chris Martin pitched the sixth and gave up a couple of hits but got away with it.

But the theory of a bullpen without predetermined roles? It failed miserably Saturday.

Roberts called on Tommy Kahnle to start the seventh. He gave up a walk, two hits and a run and gave way to Yency Almonte, who gave up a run-scoring double to He-Seong Kim and a game-tying single to Juan Soto. Almonte struck out Manny Machado and got Brandon Drury on a pop-up to provide an escape route, and lefty Alex Vesia – tardily, it seemed – began warming up with the idea that he’d face lefty Jake Cronenworth.

He came in to do so but with a 1-and-0 count. As Roberts explained afterward, Almonte was supposed to throw over to first base mainly to kill time and allow Vesia to finish warming up, but he missed the sign and threw to the plate instead.

And then Cronenworth struck the fatal blow, a two-run line single up the middle to turn that 3-0 deficit into a 5-3 lead. Well before then, the question arose: Why not Evan Phillips?

He’s been the Dodgers’ best relief pitcher for three months. The no-roles concept was designed to provide the flexibility for a Phillips to face the opposition’s key hitters in leverage situations.

Instead, Roberts said, he was saving Phillips for the ninth and a save situation. Isn’t that what he’d been trying to get away from?

“He was going to finish the game for us,” Roberts said. “Martin came in in the sixth inning and got through that, so at that point in time where they were at in the order, we felt that Yency was the right guy there. And having more right-handers than left-handers and having Phillips at the back end to finish the game with potentially left and right-handed hitters, we felt good about that.

“He (Almonte) gave up a ground ball that got by Max (Kim’s double) … Muncy could have fielded it, could have been a double play. It wasn’t to be, and that’s baseball.”

Never mind that it would have taken a Gold Glove play to turn two on that shot up the line, one that Muncy is probably not capable of.

And that all helps to explain why October is the cruelest month, especially when managers leave themselves open to second-guessing. Was this bullpen management more egregious than sending Clayton Kershaw out for a second inning in relief, and then sending Joe Kelly out for a second inning, on that October evening against the Washington Nationals in 2019 when another brilliant season came to an abrupt and early end?

That time, 106 victories went to waste. This time it was 111. More than ever in baseball’s expanded playoff format, regular-season performance is a means to an end – especially when you predict in the springtime that your team is going to win the World Series, as Roberts did.

Was the five-day layoff, necessitated by the new wild-card series, a factor? Anecdotal evidence suggests so. The Braves and Dodgers had byes and both were eliminated Saturday. The Yankees had a bye and face an elimination game Sunday in Cleveland.

Only the Houston Astros overcame the layoff, and they reacted to their 18-inning victory over Seattle to advance in typically classy fashion.

SEA y’all next year.

— Houston Astros (@astros) October 16, 2022

(Somehow they forgot a trash can to sweep up the debris. I wonder why.)

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But we digress. Roberts mildly disagreed with the concept that the regular season record was devalued by playoff failure.

“Yeah, there’s certainly fans that are going to think it was a wasted season,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anybody in our clubhouse, in uniform or with the Dodgers, that feels that way. But every person has their opinions, which they’re entitled.”

He might want to do a deeper canvass in his clubhouse.

“I mean, when you don’t win in the World Series, it doesn’t matter if you win 80 games or 120 games,” Freeman said. “It’s just disappointment.

“It’s just October baseball. Like we’ve been saying, it’s hard and it can be brutal.”

Dodgers fans, again, will certainly agree.

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