Dodgers stay together on field

LOS ANGELES -- Yasiel Puig kept sneaking up on people with chunks of ice to fling at them, buckets of water to dump on them or double-barrel beers, vigorously shaken, to spray on them.

Clayton Kershaw kept declining interviews for a while, so he could celebrate in the middle of the clubhouse with his teammates. He took breaks to alternately chug from a red bottle of beer and a blue one -- one regular, one light.

Dee Gordon chose a quiet corner, where he crouched in reflection for a while before borrowing a TV reporter's goggles and diving into the heaving, spraying, soaked-to-the-skin mob.

The Los Angeles Dodgers earned something of a reputation this season as a talented bunch of players with the salaries and egos to match, a team assembled with the power of the dollar from all corners of the world and plucked from the rosters of other organizations. Throughout the season, at various points, discontent crept into their clubhouse. There were rumblings that infighting was common and unity was always a question mark.

In short, the same storyline that ushered them into the 2013 season -- did they have team chemistry? -- lingered all season. But as usual with teams like this, winning produces chemistry, not the other way around. And if you noticed, the Dodgers always seemed to be having the most fun in the vicinity of the field, when they were bobbing en masse in the dugout celebrating home runs with their bubble machine or, after they clinched their second straight National League West title with a 9-1 win over the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday, with their vigorous celebration in the clubhouse.

They may not have had dinner together often, they may not attend each others' weddings, their kids' baptisms or bar mitzvahs, but they win games together. Which do you think their fans would rather have? Which do you think their owners, who are paying them collectively more than $240 million, would rather have?

"I've been on teams where every single guy gets along great, and when you get on the field, you don't know how to win," Adrian Gonzalez said. "We've got the right group of guys, we've got the right mix and we're professional guys."

Hanley Ramirez stated it more bluntly, more emotionally: "We're one team. We love each other. We win together, we lose together."

A year ago, the Dodgers clinched their division on Sept. 19, in Game 153. After they took a little dip in the Arizona Diamondbacks' pool, they had nine games to rest up for the playoffs, six more than they'll have this time. In these past couple of weeks, even without their No. 3 starter, the Dodgers are playing their most complete baseball of the season. Their lineup, finally healthy, is beginning to match their pitching.

"Our lineup is so much longer," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "It feels like it's a complete team right now, and that's a great feeling.

"It also doesn't hurt to have the best pitcher in baseball."

Yeah, there is that. Kershaw capped off his monstrous 2014 regular season with eight innings and 11 strikeouts against the Giants to finish with the tidiest numbers a pitcher has put up in more than a dozen years: 21-3, 1.77 ERA, 239 strikeouts in 198⅓ innings even after missing six starts early in the season because of a strained muscle in his back. He won't pitch again until Game 1 of the playoffs, so he'll become the first pitcher in history to lead the major leagues in ERA in four straight seasons.

In about two months, he has a great chance to be the first National League pitcher to win an MVP award since Bob Gibson in 1968.

"MVP is something I don't really think about right now, because we have so many guys who contribute day in and day out, so obviously I'm honored by the thought of it, but right now we're trying to win 11 more games," Kershaw said.

It's about 98 percent likely the Dodgers will play the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs, with the first game Oct. 3 at Dodger Stadium. Undoubtedly, Kershaw will be on the mound in that game and, undoubtedly, it will cross his mind that the last time he faced the Cardinals in the postseason, his team went home for good. Kershaw gave up seven runs and 10 hits in only four innings of that Game 6, a 9-0 Cardinals win.

"I think the experience of what we went through -- we had some successes, we had some failures -- will help," Kershaw said. "Me, personally, I succeeded and I also failed in that last game. We know what to expect, we know the atmospheres to expect and it looks like we might play the Cardinals again, so it could be a rematch and we know what that environment's going to be like and, hopefully, that helps."

So, it all boils down to this: If the Dodgers beat St. Louis, then beat somebody else and then beat somebody else, they'll be World Series champions for the first time since 1988 and nobody's going to be talking much about their lack of chemistry. If they don't, the storyline will resurface.

The same day manager Don Mattingly was at his most disgusted, referring reporters' questions to his players and calling his club "basically s---ty," Kenley Jansen and Ramirez had gotten into a loud argument on the field, with media within earshot, before the game. A week ago, Matt Kemp was seen stalking Puig in the Coors Field dugout and yelling at him for not running harder on the bases. Like an iceberg, more profound trouble usually lurks below, unseen by most of us. Mattingly has fully admitted the personal conflicts have gotten old as the season progressed. After the Kemp-Puig dustup, Mattingly compared the Dodgers to the 1972 Oakland A's. The three-time World Series champion A's were notorious for winning a lot of games while getting into constant disagreements -- and, in several instances, knock-down, drag-out fist fights.

"We've had a little more turmoil back and forth," Mattingly said. "A lot of things that happened behind closed doors and stuff that's going on that has just been tedious this year, but it's what the job is."

Kemp threw some tantrums when he was demoted as center fielder, replaced at first by Andre Ethier and later Puig. Then, he sulked through most of June. He didn't hit much either, but lately, since the All-Star break, that part has come roaring back, almost to 2011 levels, and Kemp isn't just more pleasant to be around, he has been showing some signs of actual leadership. Yeah, the Puig incident counts as that, as does standing between Puig and Madison Bumgarner on Tuesday night before anything could escalate.

Ethier has mostly quietly stewed though his role has virtually disappeared. The way Mattingly uses Joc Pederson at times, you could argue Ethier is the sixth outfielder. Ethier has made some comments but nothing too inflammatory. Puig is a constant challenge to Mattingly and the coaches. They fret about whether he'll show up on time, whether he'll take his pregame work seriously and whether he'll throw to the right base. They also know his prodigious talent, though, and upper management wants him treated with kid gloves, so they tread lightly.

Ramirez has quietly brooded since it became evident the Dodgers weren't interested in extending a long-term contract to an injury-prone 30-year-old with a shaky glove. He didn't talk to the media for months until ending his boycott Wednesday, which means everybody else has to talk a little more. That can't be popular.

The hostility even spilled into the minor leagues. Infielder Alex Guerrero and catcher Miguel Olivo, who were both with the Dodgers all spring, brawled in the dugout during a Triple-A game. During the fight, Olivo bit off part of Guerrero's ear, resulting in Guerrero requiring surgery and Olivo getting shipped out of the organization.

So, yeah, it's not entirely hunky-dory all the time. Team bus rides and flights have probably felt, at times, like a family reunion late in the night after a big argument breaks out, the house quiet and uncomfortable.

But push them and they'll stand up for one another, on the field anyway. Kershaw might not have much to say to Ramirez if they had dinner, but he'll drill Matt Holliday if the Cardinals use Ramirez for target practice. That happened this season. Kemp might have yelled at Puig, but he also rushed on the field to get between him and Bumgarner, who is 6-foot-5 and country-strong.

Above and beyond all that, there is the constant, never-ending imperative for a team with this payroll and expectations. As Kershaw put it, when a radio host offered up the phrase to either accept or reject, it's "World Series or bust," for the Dodgers. If they win the World Series, nobody will care whether they exchange holiday cards a couple of months later.