Joc Pederson stepped to the plate at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday night in the eighth inning of a 1-1 game mired in a 1-for-38 slump. The bases were loaded, but there were two outs, and it looked as if it might be one of those rare games that could slip away from the Los Angeles Dodgers. The fans were making noise and manager Dave Roberts watched intently from over the dugout railing, but I’m not sure anyone had much confidence in Pederson coming through.
Then again, when the baseball gods love you, they really love you.
Pederson took a fastball for a ball, then a changeup for a strike. Chicago White Sox reliever Jake Petricka fired another fastball and plunked Pederson in the back of his thigh, just below his pants pocket. The go-ahead run scored, the crowd stood up and raised their arms in joy, then the floodgates opened as the Dodgers tacked on four more runs, pulling away for a 6-1 victory.
This is how you set a pace of 116 wins: A lot of talent, a lot of depth, a lot of good vibes in the clubhouse and maybe a little good fortune here and there. The 2001 Mariners and the 1906 Cubs hold the single-season record of 116. With 43 games remaining, the Dodgers have a chance at history.
Here’s the thing, though: The Dodgers don’t care about the record. They certainly don’t care about what they’ve accomplished so far, seemingly unimpressed even by going 50-9 since June 7.
“We’re not looking back right now, we’re looking forward,” closer Kenley Jansen told me last week in New York. “To be honest, when [Justin Turner] and I signed, we knew what kind of group of guys we had and wanted to come back here. We had unfinished business, we saw how far we got last year and we’re playing for that one goal: To win a championship.”
Veteran starter Rich Hill echoed similar thoughts.
“I don’t even like talking about wins and losses, because that’s not really what it is for us at the end of the day,” he said. “It’s really about the effort we give out on the field and the consistency of that effort. If you look at this team, there is something different, and it’s that intensity all 25 guys bring every single night.”
Hill said there had been no talk about the record in the clubhouse, and that even if the Dodgers had a shot at it near the end of the regular season, that the team wouldn’t be discussing it. “I don’t think so,” he said.
“Don’t me get wrong about the wins and losses,” he reiterated, “but it really is about the consistency of everybody doing what they need to do.”
This is in stark contrast to how the Mariners viewed things in 2001. That team started off hot and never cooled off. They went 20-5 in April and 20-7 in May for a 63-24 first half. The All-Star Game was in Seattle that year, and by then, the talk had already started. The city became consumed with the record.
“For the last month and a half, the chase was for the record,” Mariners second baseman Bret Boone told Art Thiel in his book, “Out of Left Field.”
“The worldwide media coverage was intense in the countdown. Once we [tied the MLB mark], it was kind of a relief: ‘Oh, it’s over — no, wait a minute, next is the playoffs.’ Not to use that as an excuse, but the grind and the scrutiny kind of beat us down.”
The Mariners reached the American League Championship Series but lost to the New York Yankees in five games. Manager Lou Piniella had pushed the team pretty hard down the stretch. Mike Cameron, for example, started 33 of the final 34 games. Boone missed three games because of a minor ailment in mid-September but sat only two other games the final two months. Ichiro Suzuki played 157 games. Of course, facing Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens might have had to something to do with the loss to the Yankees, but some suggested the team was simply worn down by October.
“I don’t think you can say we shouldn’t have gone for the record,” Boone said in the 2003 book. “If you can do something in a sport that’s never been done, you gotta go for it. That’s greatness. Lou did the right thing. Take your chances. No matter how bittersweet the end result, everyone on that team and in that organization will be a footnote in history.”
If the Dodgers keep this up — they pulled off another dramatic victory on Wednesday, rallying for three runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Chicago White Sox again — they will start facing the same pressure as the Mariners, with the same questions day after day and a new throng of national media closing in on them.
So far, like the Mariners in 2001, they’ve been able to remain focused.
“That’s the mindset we have,” Jansen said, “thinking of that one goal every day, just being in that moment and coming to the ballpark and expecting to win every day.”
If it all sounds a little bit like the advice Crash Davis gave to Nuke LaLoosh, well, it’s working for the Dodgers. Baseball players are creatures of taking it one game at a time, of forgetting the previous day’s results, of focusing only on the game ahead. The big picture? Going after 116 wins? That’s for the fans and the media to have fun with.
If the Dodgers do bear down on 116 wins, Hill says he believes the makeup of the team is a reason it won’t become a distraction from the more important goal.
“The mixture of the ages that is in here is great for a club to come together,” he said. “Nobody treats anybody different. That’s something that’s very unique in this clubhouse that you might not necessarily see everywhere. It’s a cool thing because it cultivates a learning environment, it cultivates creativity. That’s the other side of it, that guys are allowed to be themselves. That starts at the top with Dave.”
At one point in New York, Pederson strolled through the clubhouse and high-fived the row of interpreters sitting in one corner. “Hello to my Japanese friends,” he joyfully shouted, maybe not even aware that one of the interpreters had just joined the team, coming over with Yu Darvish. Jansen specifically mentioned how Roberts has done such a terrific job handling Yasiel Puig, who always seemed to be in constant friction with Don Mattingly.
That’s one of the remarkable things about this team. The constant influx of new faces and roster turnover hasn’t been a problem. The Dodgers have made more than 100 transactions already.
“We dealt with this last year, so we’re pretty used to it this year,” Corey Seager said with a laugh.
While the Mariners used only 15 pitchers all season — and two of those pitched fewer than 15 innings — the Dodgers have already used 23. It’s one reason everyone was so accepting of Darvish coming over. He’s just another new pitcher, albeit one with a good fastball.
That gets to the big question, though: Should the Dodgers care about the record? After all, somebody wins the World Series every season. Only two teams have ever won 116 games, and one of them did it more than 100 years ago. I’d suggest that chasing down the record is a more impressive accomplishment than winning some postseason tournament.
Of course, I get that it is all about the World Series, that teams ultimately are judged by who wins the final game of the season. Just ask the 2016 Golden State Warriors. Still, consider this: Since the wild-card era began in 1995, 10 teams won games at a .636 or better clip (103 wins). Only three of them won the World Series. That’s the same number of teams that have won the World Series since 1995 with fewer than 90 wins.
It seems pretty clear that Roberts won’t push the Dodgers the way Piniella pushed the Mariners. Roberts will be much more concerned about making sure Clayton Kershaw is healthy and ready for October or that Alex Wood doesn’t wear down than about winning 116 games. There is plenty of depth here to give the position players rest, especially once the rosters expand in September.
The record? Next question. “Nobody pays attention to that,” Seager said. “Nobody is worried about it, nobody is worried about the win streaks and all that. It’s been our philosophy from the beginning to grind at-bats, to grind out series, to be as relentless as possible.”
It seems the Dodgers would agree with Mariners infielder Mark McLemore. After losing to the Yankees, he said, “You don’t play to set records. You play to win the World Series. When you don’t, it’s very disappointing.”
So the goal is clear. Don’t be disappointed.