SAN FRANCISCO -- Maybe it was the spray in their eyes or maybe it was the alcohol in their bloodstreams or maybe they just really believed it, but in the champagne afterglow of their 8-0 win over the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Dodgers seemed convinced that the third time will be their charm.
The Dodgers are going to the postseason for the third year in a row, the first time this storied franchise has pulled that off. The Dodgers had an up-and-down season even by the standards of an up-and-down sport, and they won't win as many games as last year's 94-win team or even as many as the 2013 team unless they get awfully hot in their last five games.
But when they took a break from dousing one another in beer or chugging bubbly Tuesday night after a stunning one-hit, 13-strikeout performance from Clayton Kershaw that knocked out the defending champs, each of the Dodgers who stopped to reflect on this season sounded confident this team is built better to play deeper into October than either of the previous two.
Getting to the playoffs, after all, was never the lone goal of this $300 million team, the most expensive in American sports history. Next on the agenda is getting to their first World Series in 27 years, but they have to take it incrementally, of course. Next up is a young New York Mets team that many people feel will be a formidable first-round challenge.
"I'm a big believer that you have to celebrate the small victories in this game, because you never know when you get to do it again. Obviously, we've got a long way to go," Kershaw said. "We've done this now three times in a row, so we'd like to get a little further."
No one has more to prove in the coming month and however many days than Kershaw, who since walking off the field as the losing pitcher in St. Louis last October during the National League Division Series has been intent on changing his reputation for coming up small in the biggest games. Tuesday, of course, wasn't the postseason, but it also wasn't just domination. It was one guy beating nine guys practically all by himself.
Kevin Frandsen's single to right field was the only Giants hit. Kershaw's 13 strikeouts drew him to within six of 300 for the season, which would be a first in the major leagues in 13 seasons.
"Today, he won the game for us," Adrian Gonzalez said of Kershaw.
For Kershaw, never one to pat himself on the back, the real work starts in about a week. He will have one more tuneup start Sunday before, most likely, taking the ball for Game 1 of the NLDS on Oct. 9. Game 1 will be at Citi Field unless the Dodgers can make up two games on the New York Mets in the final five days. Kershaw is embarking on his fifth postseason, but he said he doesn't know if he has gotten any wiser from the experience.
"I don't know if you can get wiser from failing all the time. I know what that feels like," Kershaw said. "There have been some small successes, obviously, but I don't know. I'll let you know when I get there."
The Dodgers ushered in 2015 by making sweeping changes in the front office, moving general manager Ned Colletti into an advisory role and hiring Andrew Friedman away from the Tampa Bay Rays to put together what they hope is the best analytical front office in baseball. Friedman's group traded franchise icon Matt Kemp to the San Diego Padres for a powerful catcher with a knack for pitch framing, Yasmani Grandal. They sent speedster Dee Gordon to Miami to improve their depth and to get the piece to acquire Howie Kendrick from the Los Angeles Angels. They brought in veteran Jimmy Rollins to stabilize the middle of the field.
The ups and downs were more than this front office bargained for, but the upshot was what they were going for: a more professional team that could do more damage in October. Gonzalez has been saying since January that this team could be better constructed to win the well-pitched, anxiety-provoking games that are to come.
"I like this team a lot better," he said Tuesday. "It has veteran leadership, guys that have been there, guys who go hard every day. I think we've got the right nucleus of guys."
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who has had his share of hassles the previous few seasons with ego-driven players and immature behavior, said the 2015 team stood out to him for one primary characteristic.
"A lot more professional this year," Mattingly said. "Our guys get ready to play. I never really worried about them being ready to play. I could trust them. They got down to business on the field, and that was a good feeling for me."
This front office leaves little to chance anyway and, with the National League pennant races all but decided weeks ago, has had time to zero in at the granular level on breaking down the Mets. General manager Farhan Zaidi wouldn't offer up any trade secrets, but he said his initial analysis suggest a competitive series.
"I read somewhere that there are a lot of similarities between these two teams," Zaidi said. "They're both teams that have pretty good right-left balance, that have some really high-end arms at the front of the rotation and are deep. We have a deep team. They, with their position-player acquisitions at the deadline, added a lot of depth. So, it's going to be an interesting series with matchups and late-game strategy, I think."