ST. LOUIS -- Clayton Kershaw defined this Los Angeles Dodgers season as "World Series or bust" in a radio interview earlier this season, so now we're left wondering what exactly "bust" means when the most expensive team in baseball history flames out in the first round of the playoffs.
The Dodgers, who went into 2014 with a $235 million payroll, bowed out two stops short of their first World Series title in 26 years with Tuesday's 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
Kershaw certainly didn't mean it this way, but the literal interpretation of "bust" is to break things up, as in make major changes to the team. With that kind of money invested, the owners -- or, more likely, team president Stan Kasten -- could choose to fire manager Don Mattingly or general manager Ned Colletti. Stranger things have happened when big-market teams fall short of their self-appointed goals, and most around the Dodgers seemed to think this team had more in it than four postseason games.
So far, we have no hard information on whether there will be major changes in baseball operations. Mattingly, who signed a three-year contract extension last winter, said he doesn't know whether the ownership group would make any swift changes. He flew back with the team to Los Angeles and will be around for organizational meetings the next few days.
Kasten declined to comment with a clipped, "Not a good time." Owner Mark Walter pleasantly declined an interview request as he helped a clubhouse attendant maneuver a wheeled pallet of bats down a hallway, a somewhat bizarre scene. Colletti wasn't around in the team's clubhouse after the game, exiting after spending some time in Mattingly's office.
Last season, Kasten and Colletti both spoke to the media, in the very same visiting clubhouse, after the Dodgers bowed out in the National League Championship Series. So, maybe their silence speaks volumes, or maybe it's just the silence of frustrated people who don't want to say anything rash.
But not many people were backing off Kershaw's initial premise, that this was a team capable of playing a lot longer.
"I'm probably still going to be watching baseball and that's probably when it hurts the most, when you're sitting there watching other teams play that you know you're not necessarily better than, but you can compete with them and be where they're at," Matt Kemp said.
Pitcher Kenley Jansen put it more bluntly after watching a Cardinals team that had scored 99 fewer runs than the Dodgers in the regular season beat them three games to one and score 15 of its 18 runs in the seventh inning and beyond.
"There should be no reason that that team is better than us," Jansen said. "I don't think they're better than us, but they were clutch all the time. That's what got us, especially in a five-game series. Things happened in the game, they just got clutch again. They beat us."
The fact Kershaw gave up 11 runs in his two starts -- all of the runs sudden, nine of them in the seventh inning -- to lose two games, falls under the category of "unpredictable things that happen in October." Yes, Kershaw had that one bad start here last October, but he also had three good postseason starts. Until the seventh inning arrived, Kershaw was as dominant as he had been all season, en route to what is sure to be his third Cy Young.
"The season ended and I was a big part of the reason why. It doesn't feel good, regardless of how you pitched," Kershaw said. "I can't really put it into words right now, just bad déjà vu all over again."
What was entirely predictable in this series was the bullpen's foibles. Dodgers relievers had a 6.48 ERA and gave up three home runs in four games. Kershaw might not have even gone out for the seventh inning after throwing 94 pitches on three days' rest Tuesday if not for Mattingly's lack of faith in any reliever other than Jansen, who probably would have pitched two innings if Kershaw could have gotten through the seventh. Kershaw certainly might have been lifted after the first two batters in the inning hit their way on base, but he wasn't. Matt Adams had looked foolish chasing Kershaw's curveball earlier, but he got one that hung and yanked it into the Cardinals' bullpen for a three-run home run.
Asked if he might have gotten Kershaw sooner had his bullpen been more stout, Mattingly said, "Obviously, your team is your team. It's like when you pinch hit, whether you pinch hit for one guy or another, you don't do it if it's not the right guy up there. And your team situation is your team situation." That seemed to be an obtuse way of saying, "Yes," without hurting anyone's feelings.
No one could have seen the bullpen's struggles coming, other than anyone who watched the Dodgers all season. Including Dan Haren, the Dodgers had $41 million worth of salary sitting in their bullpen this series. Colletti was the one who assembled that bullpen last winter and the winter before, and he's also the one who was unable to improve it at the trade deadline. Of course, Kasten can't entirely blame Colletti for that. He wants to start building from within and signed off on holding on to the team's top three prospects at the deadline. The fact that Colletti had to overspend so badly to build this bullpen just speaks to the inability of the Dodgers' draft and development people to acquire and nurture good young arms in recent seasons. Of course, Colletti is in charge of the team's scouting and player development departments as well, so that doesn't necessarily absolve him.
The Cardinals' bullpen wasn't quite as good as it was when the Dodgers saw them in 2013, but the Cards still could fall back on blazing fastballs from Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez, both homegrown players, late in games. The Dodgers have only one marquee free agent coming up and it's pretty apparent they're not going to bring back Hanley Ramirez. Josh Beckett has said he might retire. Catcher A.J. Ellis' status is a bit shady since he batted .191 (before having a monster playoff series) and will turn 34 next April. The Dodgers could elect not to tender him a contract to avoid arbitration.
"You don't know how many chances you're ever going to get to do this," Ellis said. "There are no guarantees in life, no guarantees in baseball, that's for sure. I know how hard it was and how draining it was to get to this point. It's our second year in a row and we can't take it for granted that we'll be back here again."
Come to think of it, there's not a lot they can take for granted right now.