There were times when the 2014 Dodgers looked capable of breaking the team’s 26-year World Series parade drought. Clayton Kershaw, the game’s most talented pitcher, was usually on the mound at those moments. Yasiel Puig, the team’s most talented player, was usually swinging a hot bat.
But for a team that won 94 games, there were a surprising number of moments when the Dodgers looked unfocused, divided or just plain unhappy. It’s no secret by now that this was not a team that had great cohesion and the new front office has hammered at that point by continually mentioning functionality in explaining its copious off-season moves.
The owners made their feelings about 2014 known shortly after their $2 billion investment was eliminated from the playoffs by the St. Louis Cardinals, again. It wasn’t good enough. General manager Ned Colletti was pushed into an advisory role and two of the brightest young financial minds in baseball -- small-market gurus Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi -- were brought in to streamline baseball operations.
Those efforts are a work in progress, but let’s revisit, in an entirely subjective way, the high and low point of 2014, which was -- if nothing else -- an entertaining ride:
If you remember nothing else about 2014, savor your recollections of June 18, whether you were one of the 46,069 fans announced at Dodger Stadium on that Wednesday night or simply read about it the next day in the newspaper or on the Web. Even if you only heard about it second or third-hand and, yeah, we know so few of you could watch it on TV, these are the kinds of moments that bond a team with a city and a fan base.
Kershaw pitched the best game in the history of baseball. It was the Dodgers’ second no-hitter of 2014, but it had a far different feel from Josh Beckett’s get-away day sleight of hand in Philadelphia.
Change the word “best,” to “most efficient” game of all time and it’s really no longer an argument. How cool is that? Kershaw said he considered that night’s no-hitter -- perfection marred only by a Hanley Ramirez throwing error -- to be secondary to dominant performances in the postseason or in a pennant race, but if you remove the stakes, it was as great as greatness gets.
As Kershaw gathered himself for the final few pitches, I took out my cell phone and pressed the record button. Shaky and unfocused as the video is, captured from hundreds of feet away in the press box, it captures the immediacy and emotion of the moment better than high-definition footage.
Kershaw was on the attack and in a hurry. After Corey Dickerson fouled a ball back toward the screen and everyone gave chase, A.J. Ellis barely had time to squat and Dickerson hardly had time to set his feet in the batter’s box when Kershaw began his motion. He rocked and fired that final pitch past a feeble swing to put his 15-strikeout, no-walk masterpiece on the books. His glove went flying, his hands shot skyward.
You can’t economize 107 pitches much better outside laboratory conditions. Only one batter reached a three-ball count. Kershaw averaged fewer than four pitches per batter. This was simple, clinical disregard for an opponent. It was lethal pitching, a snake swallowing a field mouse because that’s what a snake does to a mouse.
There are so few times in sports when true greatness is so obvious, so immediate.
Games 1 and 4 tend to get lumped together because Kershaw gave up the winning runs to the Cardinals in the seventh inning of both games, effectively costing the Dodgers any hope of a world title. But they were qualitatively night and day.
Kershaw pitched gamely in Game 4 on three days’ rest, his downfall swift and unlucky. He threw a couple of marginal pitches to the first two batters of the inning who did just enough to eke out singles, and he hung a curveball to Matt Adams that narrowly cleared the right-field wall.
Hard to blame a guy for that kind of effort in exhausting, pressure-packed circumstances. With a better bullpen, Kershaw might not have been out there. The Cardinals won the game on just four hits, three of which came in a bunch. Pin this one on the Dodgers’ offense or on Don Mattingly for benching Puig, or on Puig for performing so poorly Mattingly benched him.
The seventh inning of Game 1 was undeniably a Kershaw meltdown. The massive swing in momentum probably cost the Dodgers the series.
Bad as the Dodgers’ bullpen was, holding a 6-2 lead in the seventh inning with Kershaw on the mound should be manageable. Instead, it was a swift unraveling, an eight-run Cardinals inning that stunned a sold-out Dodger Stadium crowd. The first four batters singled and Matt Carpenter, the rare left-handed batter who feasts on Kershaw’s pitches, yanked one into the alley for a three-run double. The bullpen performed as miserably as it did all series, with young Pedro Baez coming in and giving up a crushing three-run home run to Matt Holliday.
But this, unlike Game 4, was on Kershaw. It means that, should the Dodgers qualify for the postseason next year, the questions about Kershaw and the postseason will be foremost in everyone’s minds. These are the kinds of moments that alter a team’s fate and there might be only one man who can alter its course again.