I still haven’t watched a pitch from Game 6.
I have a general theory on the potentially penultimate game in a series when your favorite team is down 3 games to 2: other than a general enjoyment of the sport, there is no upside to watching Game 6s. Zero.
Let’s say your squad is entangled in one of these such battles for their very postseason existence, looking on down at a long offseason abyss, proverbial fingernails scratching at the cliff. For most people, the excitement of a pressure packed game is genuinely the most exhilarating situation possible. But for the fans of that team, it’s absolutely excruciating. Before the starting tip, first pitch or opening kick-off, you’re already on edge. For a fan whose team is down 3-2, it’s even worse.
In almost every single case, there is no upside to watching that game. All that winning the contest means…is that there’s still another game to watch and win, with the stakes raised and the anxiety ratched up seventeen dozen notches. Winning that Game 6 ultimately doesn’t mean winning, but rather, just delays any shot at a satisfying feeling of finality. For the hardcore fan whose emotions live and die with the team, Game 6s are the worst. Which is part of the reason I wasn’t sitting in front of a television on Friday.
Though the Pearl Jam tickets I bought didn’t help, either.
As the night wore on, I periodically checked my phone not for Scorecenter updates, but rather for text messages from friends. Around 8:45pm, they began to roll in, the next one seemingly even more pained than the one before it. Some told me that I was lucky to not be watching and others just SMS of transposed guttural grunts of agony. I knew the season was over, but rather than checking for the final box score, I blithely put away my phone and continued enjoying the crunching guitars of 20 year old songs and the accompanying headbanging 50-something Gen X’ers. The Dodgers were just 6 wins away from a title, but it felt much, much closer than even that.
But in most cases, the reality is that if your team loses in the League Championship round, they’re much more flawed than a team of such distinction seems. The Detroit Tigers, eliminated on Saturday by the American League Champion Boston Red Sox, were just two wins away from the World Series, just like the Dodgers. Still, looking at the imperfections at the Tigers from afar, there are easily identifiable holes that the front office will have to allay going into 2014. Detroit’s bullpen is a mess (as it’s been for the previous three seasons), with closer Joaquin Benoit an upcoming free agent and his potential replacements like Al Albuquerque, Bruce Rondon and Phil Coke all unproven or inconsistent. Manager Jim Leyland stepped down yesterday, leaving the Tigers without one of the greatest coaches of the past 30 years. Looking towards this winter, Detroit may need a starting left fielder in addition to their ample needs in the pen. These weaknesses are readily apparent, though miniscule compared with playoff contending teams like Kansas City (two, maybe three starters), Tampa Bay (expected to trade David Price and needing a closer) or Anaheim (three starters and bounce back years from Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols). The Tigers were so close to another shot at their first title in 30 years in terms of mere wins, but in reality, they might just be a team with a significant flaw that got lucky…which is why being a Dodgers fan is so excruciating right now.
Going into 2014, there’s really only one way that the Dodgers can give themselves a better shot at winning a title. The pitching staff is largely set. In a postseason series, what better chance could a team give themselves than watching Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu take the mound three starts in a row? Behind them, Kenley Jansen might just be the best closer in baseball, with other bullpen options like veterans JP Howell and Ronald Belasario and young arms like Chris Withrow, Jose Dominguez and Paco Rodriguez fast emerging as shutdown relievers. Offensively, even if this team wanted to (which I don’t believe they do), LA doesn’t have many holes on the field. Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez are all locked up to big money deals, with everyone but Ramirez on the books for at least four more seasons. A.J. Ellis is still available on the cheap, and even at age 32 is still in his prime as one of the game’s best catchers; he’s not going anywhere. The Dodgers just signed 27 year-old Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero to a $28-30 million dollar, five year pact and he’ll come to Spring Training with the chance to grab the starting second base job. Even many of the bench spots seem locked up, with OF Mike Baxter, C Tim Federowicz and 1B/OF Scott Van Slyke looking like viable options.
Truly, the only completely open spots look like one starting pitching spot and third base, but even those two positions seem to have easy solutions. The fourth starter could be a re-signed Ricky Nolasco, who pitched well in his 15 regular season starts, and the hot corner is likely to be manned, remarkably, by Juan Uribe, who is a decent stopgap option while the organization waits for 19 year-old Corey Seager to gain more experience.
The Dodgers will no doubt try and get better in whatever ways they can. They could choose to sign guys like Matt Garza or 25 year-old Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka for four or five years and in excess of $70 million. They could also take a shot at Robinson Cano for $240 million plus and see if Guerrero could play third base. The Dodgers front office could do just about anything with the money backing them, but they simply don’t need to do any of it. The roster they have is completely capable of winning the World Series. All they’ll need is better luck. They’ll need Hanley not to get hit in the ribs and another shot with the bases loaded in the NLCS. They’ll need Andre Ethier to be unimpeded by a sprained ankle and make a catch in center field, or for the ball to ricochet slightly softer off the outfield fence into Yasiel Puig’s glove.
The worst feeling is knowing that the Dodgers front office can’t do much more this offseason to improve their chances. The offense is set and capable, the starting pitching might still be the best in the National League, the bullpen is up and coming and the defense is solid. Even their biggest weakness, inexperienced skipper Don Mattingly (who, truth be told, is a miniscule part of the game when compared with the starting pitching and offense), might not want to play out the year as a lame duck manager. If he does stay, it could simply be a case of getting him the right bench coach to help with those in-game tactical decisions. When compared with a monumental task like getting two or three high quality starting pitchers or a middle-of-the-order power bat, the Dodgers have a relatively carefree winter.
This is a championship caliber squad. They will go into 2014 as favorites to win the NL West and a title contender. But when looking back at 2013, there’s not a lot the Dodgers could have done better besides stay healthy and be lucky. Now it’s just another 300 day wait until they get another shot. And that is the hardest news a Dodgers fan could hear.