They were built for unprecedented greatness, a pursuit only strengthened by a blistering start. But now, 5½ weeks into their season as reigning champions, the Los Angeles Dodgers are basically average. An initial 13-2 record has been followed by 15 losses in a stretch of 20 games, a stunning reversal that has the Dodgers at 18-17 while occupying the No. 3 spot of a division they have dominated for most of the past decade.
"I'm pissed, personally," Dodgers starter Trevor Bauer said after a 2-1 loss to the crosstown rival Los Angeles Angels on Sunday afternoon. "I freakin' hate losing. I wanna win. That's why I came here. We are not playing up to our capability right now."
After Bauer left a curveball slightly up to Angels first baseman Jared Walsh with the bases loaded and two outs in the third inning -- a pitch that resulted in a two-run double -- Bauer retired 10 in a row to keep the game close. But the visiting Dodgers only scored a single run all outing in support. They put the leadoff runner on in the fifth, sixth and seventh and came up empty each time. While still down a run in the ninth, they put two runners on base with one out for Justin Turner, their best hitter this season, and lost anyway.
The Dodgers have lost five consecutive series for the first time since the stretch run of the 2017 regular season, when they cruised to a massive division lead and seemed bored for most of the second half. They've gone 5-15 for the first time since the early portion of the 2018 regular season, when they suffered through what several players described as the proverbial World Series hangover.
Dodgers utility man Chris Taylor said the team is "too talented for it not to turn around," a notion demonstrated by a plus-32 run-differential -- first in the National League. But the root of their struggle is difficult to identify. The Dodgers haven't been hitting to their capabilities, but they haven't been hitting poorly. Their starting pitching has fallen off a tad, but it has been a strength nonetheless. Their bullpen has been short-handed, but it hasn't necessarily imploded.
The Dodgers have been hurt mostly by an inability to match their hitting with their pitching on the same day. They've also played a lot of weird games, with this week serving as a prime example.
The Dodgers dropped both ends of a doubleheader from Wrigley Field on Tuesday after Clayton Kershaw struggled through the first inning of Game 1 and the bullpen blew a late, two-run lead in Game 2. The following day, they took leads in the 10th and 11th and still lost. They returned to Southern California, enjoyed a day off and then prepared to face an Angels team that had lost four straight. It felt as if the Dodgers might finally break out again. But on Friday, two of their most important pitchers (Julio Urias and Joe Kelly) each gave up four-run innings. On Saturday, the Dodgers took a 13-0 lead and nearly gave it all up. And on Sunday, they went 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position.
"You can say it's early, and you can say there's no need to panic and you can say all these things -- and they're all true," Bauer said. "But at the end of the day, we're not just gonna roll the bats and balls out there and win baseball games. We're not just gonna sleepwalk our way to winning another division title and going to the World Series again. That's not how it works.
"You gotta go out there and beat someone, every single day. And we haven't been good at it. We have to be better."
The Dodgers have lost a major league-leading 10 games by one run. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts wasn't quite sure how to interpret that, but he struck an optimistic tone postgame on Sunday. He credited the at-bat quality in the series finale and constantly alluded to how close his team seems to turning a corner.
Still, he admitted that other players share Bauer's anger.
"There's no complacency." Roberts said. "Guys are grinding. That's who we are. But at the end of the day, it's a performance game. We're better than this, and we expect to win baseball games considerably more than we lose. He has every right to be upset, and he's not alone in that."
The Dodgers aren't whole, of course. Cody Bellinger, the National League's Most Valuable Player in 2019, hasn't played since April 5. Two key bench players, Zach McKinstry and Edwin Rios, reside on the injured list. Dustin May has opted for season-ending Tommy John surgery. Tony Gonsolin -- May's replacement in the fifth spot of the rotation -- is still working his way back. And three crucial relievers are currently recovering from injuries, a list that includes Corey Knebel, Brusdar Graterol and David Price.
But the Dodgers haven't fallen too far behind in the NL West. They sit 2½ games back of the surprising San Francisco Giants and 1½ games back of the San Diego Padres, with nearly 80% of the season remaining.
Roberts claims he hasn't even looked at the standings. He doesn't believe he needs to.
"We're gonna be at the top of this division," Roberts said. "I have no doubt in my mind."