The Los Angeles Dodgers essentially put away to the National League West early, leading by 8 1/2 games by the end of May.
Don’t look now, but that lead has grown to 17 games with 44 left to play.
The Dodgers have stayed sharp through injuries to key players and without the complexity of having no competition for months in their own division.
“Every day we play we try to win,” said Russell Martin, whose ninth-inning, two-run single against the St. Louis Cardinals Wednesday gave the team its 10th walk-off victory of the season. “We’ve done it in a bunch of different ways.”
Despite an entertaining 3-2 loss in 11 innings to the Arizona Diamondbacks Friday night at Dodger Stadium, the Dodgers are 77-41. And with the best record in Major League Baseball, the goal is to go back to the World Series for the third consecutive year. But this time, win it.
They previously lost to the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox in seven games and five games, respectively.
For them, they’re doing it this year economically.
Their payroll for luxury tax purposes is $201.3 million, $4.7 million under this year’s threshold of $206 million and fourth in Major League Baseball behind the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs. All three of those teams will have to pay the tax.
The Dodgers are on the way to winning the West for the seventh consecutive year, but in the illustrious history of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles franchise, the boys who bleed blue have never gone to the World Series three years in a row.
They haven’t won the Fall Classic in 31 years.
Their only Achilles heel might be closer Kenley Jansen, who blew his fifth save of the season Friday night when Carson Kelly hit a two-run, ninth-inning homer to tie the score. Jansen has saved 26 games, but allowed seven homers. Kelly hit another one in the 11th off Julio Urias for the win.
The Dodgers had just two hits off six D-backs pitchers, but it was a rare glitch. Aside from maintaining their edge for the last seven weeks of the regular season before the playoffs start, this is what they still want to accomplish:
“I think it’s identifying the bullpen,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “And figuring out roles, guys transitioning from starters to the ‘pen. I think just managing some workloads for the position players. That’s probably the two things we’re most mindful of.”
Roberts will have led the Dodgers to the last four of the seven consecutive division titles. And last offseason, he was rewarded with a four-year, $8 million contract extension.
Every season is different, of course.
Two years ago, the Dodgers led Arizona by 21 games as late as Aug. 25. Injuries then hit to such core players are Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger. The Dodgers lost 15 out of 16 and the lead shrank to 10.
The D-backs went on a little streak of their own, winning 13 in a row. It was enough to secure the NL’s top Wild Card berth, but not enough to topple the Dodgers, who won the division by 11 games.
The D-backs defeated the Colorado Rockies in the Wild Card Game, but then were swept by the Dodgers in a best-of-five NL Division Series.
Last year, the Dodgers had to struggle to the final game of the season, winning a Game 163 over the Rockies to take the West title.
In both cases the end result was the same: a loss in the World Series.
Right now, the Dodgers are back to where they were two years ago: treading water until the NLDS opens at Dodger Stadium on Oct. 3.
Which scenario does a manager prefer?
“I don’t wish that Game 163 on anyone,” Roberts said. “Yeah, you’re focused and you’re leaving it all out there. But I still think that being able to rest guys accordingly and set a rotation gives you the best chance to win.”
The Dodgers will have plenty of time to do all that and get healthier.
They currently have nine players on the injured list, including left-hander Yyun-Jin Ryu, who has suffered from a stiff neck, but is slated to come off the list in time to start against the D-backs Sunday.
A.J. Pollack was re-activated Friday after missing 10 days because of a groin injury, which is typical for him. He led off and started in center field.
Other veterans, like David Freese (strained left hamstring), Kiki Hernandez (left hand sprain), Rich Hill (left forearm strain), Chris Taylor (fractured left forearm), Jedd Gyorko (on a minor-league rehab assignment after suffering a number of injuries), and Alex Verdugo (right oblique strain) are in different phases of recovery.
All could be back in time for the postseason or perhaps even when rosters expand from 25 to as many as 40 men on Sept. 1, the same day postseason rosters have to be set.
This year, Roberts said, he doesn’t envision wholesale minor league call ups.
“No, no, I don’t see that,” he said. “Taylor, Hernandez, Gyorko, obviously Austin (Barnes) will be recalled. There are guys we’ve already had who have been here for quite some time. So to flood the clubhouse doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Meanwhile, the Dodgers continue to play with a sharpness and alacrity that belies the fact they are beyond challenge in their own division.
“Our goal is to come out there and play a clean baseball game every night,” Roberts said.
Martin, in his second tour with the team, is glad to be back in L.A.
“I’m in a situation now where I have a chance to win,” he said. “You have to be happy about that.”
Now all the Dodgers have to do is stay the course.