February 27, 2024

PHOENIX — The suddenness has become common, but it hasn’t become easier. As the Arizona Diamondbacks‘ rowdy celebration transitioned from their clubhouse to the infamous Chase Field pool and back late Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers shuffled through the visiting clubhouse quietly, solemnly, another exhilarating summer spilling into a disheartening autumn, an all-too-familiar outcome for an otherwise triumphant franchise. This time it was a young, scrappy, confident D-backs team that bludgeoned their starting pitchers, suffocated their best hitters and hardly ever let the 100-win Dodgers come up for oxygen.

“They kept punching us in the face, and we weren’t able to get back up,” Dodgers utility man Enrique Hernandez said after a 4-2, season-ending loss in Game 3 of this National League Division Series. “There’s not a lot of words other than ‘hurt,’ ‘disappointed,’ ‘frustrated.’ We’re a little embarrassed.”

The D-backs, 16 wins worse than the Dodgers during the regular season, scored six first-inning runs off Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 and three first-inning runs off Bobby Miller in Game 2. In Game 3, they took a 4-0 lead off four third-inning home runs against Lance Lynn, the major league leader in home runs allowed, and didn’t need much else.

The Dodgers became only the second team in baseball history to win 100 games during the regular season and never have so much as a lead during an ensuing postseason series, joining the 1963 New York Yankees, who were swept in the World Series by the Dodgers of another time. It marked the third straight year the Dodgers were eliminated in the postseason by a team they finished more than 15 games better than during the regular season. In each of the past two years, they were defeated in the NLDS by a division rival they previously dominated — first by the San Diego Padres, then by the D-backs, both in the wake of relatively long layoffs.

“There’s some things with the format that people can dissect or whatever, but the bottom line is that the last two years we’ve gotten outplayed in the postseason,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It doesn’t matter if it was a seven-game series; we lost the first three games. For me, I’ve got to do a better job of figuring out a way to get our guys prepared for the postseason. I’ll own that. I think we’ve got great players. I’ve got to figure out a way to get these guys prepared for whatever format, whatever series. Yeah, the regular season, I think we do a great job. But the last couple of postseasons, it just hasn’t gone well for us, and so I’ve got to figure it out.”

The Dodgers won 100-plus games in 2019, 2021, 2022 and 2023 and were eliminated in their first playoff series in three of those years, the lone exception being a 2021 season that ended at the hands of the eventual-champion Atlanta Braves in the NL Championship Series. These past 10 years have seen them put together one of the most successful regular-season stretches in baseball history, but it has resulted in only one championship, accomplished during the COVID-19-shortened season of 2020.

This year, the Dodgers entered the postseason with their starting pitchers as compromised as ever — and it showed more glaringly than they could have imagined. Kershaw, Miller and Lynn combined to throw just 4 2/3 innings, the fewest ever for the first three games of a postseason round. They allowed 13 runs off 16 hits and three walks during that stretch, putting their offense in an uphill battle on a consistent basis.

“Obviously a horrible way to end it personally, but that’s ultimately not important — it’s just how I didn’t help the team win this series,” said Kershaw, who will go into another offseason uncertain whether he will retire. “That’s the most important thing — letting the guys down, things like that. Process it the best you can. I don’t know what that means, but yeah, just go from there.”

The Dodgers’ bullpen gave their offense a chance in Game 3, much like it did in Game 2. But the lineup once again struggled to produce timely hits. It was most glaring in the eighth, down two runs, after pinch-hitter Kolten Wong drew a leadoff walk to bring up the top of the order. Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman struck out, and J.D. Martinez, moved into the No. 3 spot for Game 3, flied out harmlessly.

Betts and Freeman put up MVP-caliber seasons and drove the Dodgers’ high-powered offense all season, but they went a combined 1-for-21 when it mattered most.

“Not good by us,” Freeman said.

“I can’t speak for all of us,” Betts added, “but I know for sure I did absolutely nothing to help us win.”

The Dodgers beat the D-backs in each of their last five regular-season meetings, outscoring them by 18 runs in the process, then put up a measly two runs in each of their three NLDS games against them. Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly, Arizona’s two best starting pitchers by a wide margin, had a 5.93 ERA in six starts against the Dodgers during the regular season, then combined to allow just two runs in 11 2/3 innings in Games 1 and 2. In Game 3, it was rookie right-hander Brandon Pfaadt who recorded the first 13 outs with no runs across, turning the game over to the D-backs’ high-leverage relievers.

A quartet of third-inning solo homers — by Geraldo Perdomo, Ketel Marte, Christian Walker and Gabriel Moreno — provided all the support they needed. They traveled a combined 1,626 feet, all within a six-batter stretch. The third-furthest ball of the night, though, came courtesy of Chris Taylor — with one on and one out in the ninth inning, the Dodgers still trailing by two. It traveled 383 feet and could have tied the game. But it was hit to the deepest part of the ballpark, instead settling into the glove of center fielder Alek Thomas.

Another cruel outcome that led to another abrupt ending.

“We just didn’t play well,” Taylor said. “I don’t think there’s a magic answer.”

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