LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers picked the wrong season to sniff a title. But that doesn't make it hurt any less.
The team that planned and plotted its way to 104 regular-season wins and two easy series victories in the National League bracket was simply overshadowed and outplayed by a Houston Astros roster exploding with talent.
The Dodgers' championship puzzle fell apart around one of the last pieces added. Yu Darvish, acquired by L.A. at the July 31 trade deadline, was shelled for the second time in the series, giving up five runs in 1⅔ innings. The Dodgers couldn't recover, and they fell 5-1 to the Astros, who celebrated the first championship in franchise history at Dodger Stadium.
That wasn't easy for L.A. to swallow.
"I have to continue to focus on my teammates," Clayton Kershaw said. "When you think about how close you were, it makes it too hard to think about. I try to maintain my focus on the guys in the clubhouse and how proud I am to be a part of this team, just how special this team was and is."
In a series defined by dramatic moments and unbelievable turnarounds, Game 7 was seized by Houston early, and the Astros never let go. George Springer led off the game with a double before scoring the first run on a Cody Bellinger throwing error. Then Jose Altuve plated Houston's second run with one out in the opening frame, and Kershaw began stretching in the bullpen, just three nights after his Game 5 start.
But hopes of Kershaw coming in from the bullpen to help bridge the middle innings to closer Kenley Jansen never had a chance to materialize. Darvish walked Brian McCann and gave up a double to Marwin Gonzalez to start the second inning, and that led to another one-out run, this one a grounder by pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. to make it 3-0.
Then Springer broke it open with a two-run, comet-like blast to left-center. That was it for Darvish. It was more than enough for the Astros. Kershaw came on to start the third inning, but with the deficit at five runs, L.A. was staring down some bad history: No team had overcome a five-run deficit in a winner-take-all World Series game.
"Just unexpected. Even today, the velocity, I thought he was right there," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of Darvish. "I thought he was going to really throw the baseball well. And I think it was 3⅓ [innings], maybe, in this series, and just very unfortunate. I know he wanted the baseball. I know he was prepared. I just can't explain the results. I really can't."
Meanwhile, Kershaw was magnificent and threw four scoreless innings. The Game 7 performance was everything he and the Dodgers could have hoped for. The low-leverage situation was not. Afterward, Kershaw reflected on his team's near miss.
"I told the guys tonight that I'm just thankful to be a part of this team," Kershaw said. "Thankful for their commitment and work. It was never about one guy. It was about everybody in here. It's just too hard to think about what the Astros are getting to do right now."
Darvish went just 1⅔ innings in Game 3 as well, giving up four runs and six hits. Just as he did in the clincher, Darvish took the loss. He became just the second starter with more than one start of five outs or fewer in a World Series, joining Art Ditmar of the Yankees, who suffered the same fate against Pittsburgh in 1960.
In 137 career starts, including the postseason, Darvish has had only two outings in which he failed to record a strikeout. Both of them were in this World Series. Darvish was asked afterward how he deals with this kind of disappointment.
"Most of the time, [I think] it could happen to anybody, the bad days and the good days," Darvish said through an interpreter. "If I had bad days, that means somebody had a great day. I try to think of it that way, and sometimes it works. Maybe this time it didn't work because I let my teammates down."
By the time the Astros scored their fifth run, the sun was setting over the Pacific Ocean. A dark cloud moved in over Dodger Stadium -- a literal one, a pathetic fallacy -- foretelling the end of L.A.'s brightest season in years.
The Dodgers had plenty of chances to cut into the big Houston lead, getting two runners on base in five of the first six innings alone. But L.A.'s situational hitting continued to flounder, as the Dodgers went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position before Andre Ethier's pinch-hit RBI single in the sixth scored the team's only run.
"We had the opportunity to score in a lot of innings," Bellinger said. "We just couldn't come up with that big hit. That's baseball."
The Dodgers were the team that stuck to the plan, no matter what. Managing the roster with aggressive use of the new, shorter disabled list. Leveraging the platoon advantage as often as possible. Pulling starting pitchers before they were fatigued.
The organizational scheming couldn't have been executed better. The Dodgers hit every checkpoint. They clinched their division early. They rolled through a division series sweep of Arizona while the Chicago Cubs slugged it out with the Washington Nationals. They made quick work of the tired Cubs in five games in the National League Championship Series, earning another between-series break while the Astros were fighting for survival against the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
The Dodgers haven't been better positioned to win a title since the last time they won a World Series in 1988. The event production crew tried to rekindle the spirit of that season before Game 6 at Dodger Stadium by playing a video of longtime manager Tommy Lasorda leading the champagne celebration after that clinching win.
Then Lasorda, who recently turned 90, walked to the mound with Orel Hershiser, who authored a complete-game win in the '88 clincher, to toss out ceremonial first pitches. It worked well Tuesday, as the Dodgers handed Justin Verlander his first loss as an Astro to force the first Game 7 in Dodger Stadium history.
Ultimately, the planning and the pomp weren't enough to overcome the sheer talent and swagger of the Astros. For all the meticulousness of the Dodgers' path to Game 7, it was undone by a bad outing by a star-level starter against baseball's best offense.
"This month felt like 27 years," Kershaw said. "You ask my wife, too, I think it took 10 years off her life. Every game, every pitch, is just so intense. The intensity of a postseason game and you do that for a full month, I think guys are going to sleep, maybe not tonight, but going forward, they're going to sleep pretty good."
This season's World Series was just the third meeting of two 100-win teams since World War II, and it was the first since the Orioles and Reds clashed in 1970. This is what made the timing of the Dodgers' best season in Los Angeles a bit unfortunate.
The Dodgers would have been heavy favorites in the Fall Classic in almost any other recent season. That's the status that comes with winning 104 games. Of course, that wouldn't have guaranteed anything in baseball's crapshoot of a playoff format. But if the Dodgers had lost, it would have been labeled an upset.
But is anybody calling the Astros' win over the Dodgers an upset?
Not if you saw Altuve's hummingbird-like bat speed, Carlos Correa's long-limbed grace, Springer's throwback flair for the spectacular or Alex Bregman's bulldog intensity. Not if you saw Verlander overloading the Statcast cameras with Hall of Fame-level stuff: blazing fastballs, knee-buckling curveballs and endurance straight out of baseball's past.
"I told them there's a lot to be proud of," Roberts said of his team. "We fell short. That was a good ballclub over there. But what we accomplished this season and to see these guys come together as men, as a team, really special group of men. And, again, just not to hang your heads. One team can only win this. That's a great ballclub over there."
The best Brooklyn Dodgers teams were known for their dynamic position players. The pitchers were good, too, but we remember those teams most for Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo and Gil Hodges. Once the team moved to L.A. before the 1958 season, the best Dodgers teams were dominated by starting pitchers: Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, Fernando Valenzuela and Hershiser. Even in this era of bullpen dominance, there's Kershaw.
What the Dodgers saw in the Astros was a team no starting pitcher could have defeated alone, not even Kershaw and perhaps not even Koufax. With so much at stake, there was no one to carry the Dodgers the way those old aces did. That just isn't the way it's done anymore.
That's the nature of 21st-century major league baseball. You can do everything right and come up empty. The Dodgers did almost everything right in 2017. From Camelback Ranch to Chavez Ravine, every action item was achieved right on time. Unfortunately, their timeline overlapped with the wrong team. You can make a strong argument that the Dodgers were better in roster spots six through 40. But it's tougher to make the case that they were better in spots one through five.
"This is a special group of guys, it really is," Kershaw said. "You go up and down the lineup, from the first guy on the roster to the 25th guy to the guys that are in the minor leagues, all the way down. It really is a special group of guys. I love all of them. I'm thankful I got to be here, thankful I got to hang around these guys."
In the end, it was the Astros who snapped a decades-long title drought -- not the Dodgers.
For years, the famous mantra in Brooklyn, when each season seemed to end with an October loss to the hated Yankees, was "Wait 'til next year."
It has been 60 years since the Dodgers moved west, but the Pacific Coast successors of those Brooklynites are in the same boat. The Dodgers have won five straight division titles. Last year, they finished one step short of the World Series. This year, they got there and finished one win short of the title.
"I hope we get to get to this point again," Kershaw said. "Definitely wasn't easy to get here to this point."
All that remains to do is take that final step, as the Dodgers' title drought stretches to three full decades. And all that's left to say are those ancient words: Wait 'til next year.