The answer may be both.
Moments before the first pitch of the Dodgers/Giants dog days of summer game at Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles Saturday, Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers’ primadonna emigre who has battled both attitude and injuries during his streaky five seasons in blue, sprinted out into right field… by himself.
From the radio booth, Giants hall of fame playcaller Jon Miller—voice stuck in a gravely second gear as he waxed a lamentable tale of what a Saturday day game after a Friday night in LA does to men of a certain age—unleashed a much-needed throat clearing guffaw.
“The Dodgers dugout has decided to stay put and let Puig sprint out there all by himself. The affable Cuban turns and laughs pointing at them and then himself… and now the rest of the Dodgers, all smiles, have taken the field.”
There was a signature West Coast baseball-on-the-radio pause where one could only hear the chuckles of the not-quite-settled-in-their-seats crowd mixed with the wind through the palms beyond center field. The Giants co-commentator, Duane Kuiper, chimed in: “That’s the sign of a loose team. That’s the sign of a champion.”
Puig has battled a chronic hamstring injuries since 2015. This year, while his numbers remain a terrestrial .253/.325/.466, he’s already collected 328 at-bats, six fewer than last season and 38 more than all of 2015. Bumped down to the six hole to make room at the top of the order for the Dodgers’ superstars-in-the-making Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger, Puig seems contented to play a supporting role and, dare it be said, the part of clubhouse leader, not cancer.
He’s also a guy his teammates can joke around with now.
Winning cures all, and personality conflicts top that list. The Dodgers this decade have been baseball’s most consistent and prolific regular season franchise, They’ve won the last four division titles, six of the last nine and have failed to finish under .500 just once since 2005.
But their regular season dominance has been where the Dodgers bullet train stops like it’s Friday at 4:57 p.m. crawling in an Uber southbound past LAX on the 405.
Eight playoff appearances since 2004 have yielded only four trips past the NLDS and only a pair of those eliminations (‘08 and ‘16 to the Phillies and Cubs) were to the eventual world champions. On the rare occasion this decade the Dodgers did not advance to the postseason (2010 and 2012), their long-time coast-to-coast rival San Francisco Giants took home World Series trophies… along with one in 2014 when the Dodgers allowed the Cardinals to waltz by them into the NLCS.
Second-year manager Dave Roberts was blessed not only with a surfeit of young talent but also a roster mostly cleaned out of expensive contracts (Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp) of non-contributors minted during the onset of the current ownership and its historic spending spree. Of that era, only the aging and injury-addled clubhouse leader Adrien Gonzalez remains a fixture on the ballclub.
The Dodgers have a trio of top 50 MLB prospects waiting for space to clear on the roster (in the infield, outfield and bullpen) and the team sacrificed none of that talent Monday to secure the services of Texas’ Yu Darvish to create a nearly unbeatable on paper four-man rotation (Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood, Rich Hill and Darvish) heading into autumn.
The Dodgers, playing in baseball’s most competitive division—one that will likely produce a pair of NL Wild Cards in Arizona and Colorado—are obliterating the competition. Though they likely won’t eclipse the 2001 Mariners’ 116 win total (the Mariners eventually lost the ALCS 4-1 to the Yankees), they are trending toward the 114-win mark; similar to Joe Torre’s 1998 Yankees.
That team may have been the greatest to take the field to date. All Stars Scott Brosius, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams and peak Derek Jeter were backed by pitchers Andy Pettitte, Orlando Hernandez, David Cone and David Wells, each of whom checked in with a career-defining seasons in the Bronx. The Yankees finished 22 games ahead of the Red Sox, Jeter led the league in runs and hits and Williams won the batting title. Cone had a 20-win season, and Wells pitched a perfect game. They rolled to an 11-2 playoff record, including a World Series sweep of the San Diego Padres, finishing the season 125-50, the best ever.
Along with Seager (.299/.389./524, 18 HRs) and Bellinger (second in the NL with HRs with 28), the Dodgers have the league’s top bat (and glove) in third baseman Justin Turner (.359/.457/.549)… an aside, in the month of July thus far, Turner is hitting .507 off lefties; third-year left fielder Chris Taylor is also hitting well above .300 (.318/.385/.540) and is third in the league in doubles.
Kershaw is nursing a back injury but at 15-4 leads the NL in wins, Wood is nearly unbeatable at 12-1, Hill is currently blister-free and improved to 8-4 Saturday with baseball’s best curve and odd-man-out/any other team’s no. 1 Kenta Maeda is almost in double digit Ws at 9-4.
Closer Kenley Jansen throws a 97 mph cut fastball which acts like a buzz saw. He’s second in the league with 27 saves bolstered by a 1.36 ERA. Set-up man Brandon Morrow has given up 12 hits, total, in 21 games this season with a 1.66 ERA. Roberts’ Dodgers, it should be noted, are notorious for going to the bullpen early: at just 5 ⅓ innings, they’re the soonest in the majors to pull a starter, but the plan is working. They lead all of MLB in runs scored against (3.10) and in the month of July that number was below 2.
Barring injury, the Dodgers are likely the 1998 Yankees, not the 2001 Mariners. They have too much youth, too many effective veterans and a hunger insatiable to be denied once more.
On Sunday, rookie catcher Kyle Farmer’s first Major League hit, a two-run double, came in the 11th inning in front of a sold-out Dodgers Stadium and an ESPN audience that was enjoying bonus baseball to cap off the last weekend in July. The hit capped a 3-2 comeback win over the Giants to extend the Dodgers’ current winning streak to eight games and give them their 31st come-from-behind victory this season.
It is signature wins like this—a win that in all likelihood won’t matter in the box score as much as it will live in the minds of the players—that come in most handy during the postseason. And it shows, emphatically, that the Dodgers are a loose team, a team that’s ready to be a champion.