Winning streaks are fun, but they are usually gone just as quickly as they come. The Dodgers’ road winning streak, however, is nearing a month in length. It is now tied for the third-longest road winning streak in history, and a sweep of the Cardinals this week will give them the record outright. Since the record was established in 1917 and tied just once, in 1984, that is a pretty cool feat. Getting win #17 might be tough, as the matchup is Ricky Nolasco vs. Shelby Miller, but whether or not they get the record, it’s been a fun stretch of Dodgers baseball, and one that has put them firmly back in the pennant race. As such, I thought we could look back at some of the more important moments of the streak today.
It all started with a three-run inning off of Sergio Romo back on July 7th. If that sounds like something that rarely happens, it’s because it is. It was only the fifth time in his career that Romo has allowed three or more earned runs in an appearance, and one of those came in the 16th appearance of his career back in his rookie season. Of course, it would be hard to argue that all of the damage was Romo’s fault. Between two misplays on a grounder to first by Buster Posey and an ordered intentional walk to Andre Ethier, Romo had to account for two baserunners that were on through no fault of his own. Still, he allowed the big hit, a three-run double by A.J. Ellis, and with it, the Dodgers were going streaking.
What’s interesting about the streak is just how few wins have been of the one-run variety. They have had just four one-run contests, and just three more have been of the two-run variety. Put another way, more than half of the 15 victories have come by three or more runs. This has been a trend for the Dodgers on the season — only three teams have played fewer than the 28 one-run games that Los Angeles has. Still though, it’s not like they’ve been immune to them. In the midst of this road-win streak, they’ve played 10 home games, and four of those have been one-run affairs.
Boots on Necks
Entering their series in Arizona the day after their ninth-inning triumph in San Francisco, the Dodgers were in second place, four and a half games behind the Diamondbacks. For the season, Arizona had tuned up LA to the tune of a 7-2 record, and had outscored them 42-29. The Dodgers repaid them in kind, but the Dbacks were still poised to take the series and recover a modicum of their division lead. Up 5-4 entering the ninth, Heath Bell took the ball facing the top of the order and a 90.6% win expectancy in his back pocket. When he retired Mark Ellis and Yasiel Puig to start the inning, Arizona’s WE rose to 96.1%. And that was as high as it got. A walk and two singles later and the game was tied. Josh Collmenter would come on and provide three innings of effective relief, but in the 14th he coughed up back-to-back homers to Hanley Ramirez and A.J. Ellis, and the Dbacks shrunk meekly into the night. In a related story, the Dbacks stripped Bell of his full-time status as closer the following day.
Unless they mount a rally, we will look back on this series sweep as the start of Arizona’s ending. They would take three of four from a Braun and Ramirez-starved Brewers club in their next series, but they have not won a series since. Since the start of that July 8 series, here is how the NL West clubs have fared:
For a team that has harbored playoff aspirations most of the season, it’s pretty amazing that they could lose 10.5 games on their closest competitor in roughly a month’s time, but that’s where Arizona finds itself.
Head east young men
In every win streak, you need a little luck to get over, and the Dodgers found some in the paint-by-numbers bullpen management of Nationals manager Davey Johnson. Once hailed as a sabermetric friendly manager, Johnson’s bullpen management has been very regimented. His three highest-leverage relievers by gmLI (the leverage when a pitcher enters a game) — Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard — are all averaging less than an inning pitched per game. This type of management can rear its ugly head frequently when a game extends past the ninth inning, and that is exactly what happened in the Nats’ series with LA.
In the first game, Stephen Strasburg was only at 104 pitches after seven innings and had retired 11 in a row, but he was lifted for an inning of Clippard and one of Soriano. The next day, Gio Gonzalez was pulled after six innings and 98 pitches. Storen immediately coughed up the tying run, and after one inning each from Clippard and Soriano, it was Craig Stammen’s turn. Now, Stammen is a pretty good pitcher. He is working on his second consecutive year with a FIP- in the 80’s. But the more pitchers you trot out during a game, the more likely you are going to find one who isn’t having a good day. And that is what happened on that day. Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez greeted him with doubles, and just like that the lead was gone. A subsequent sac fly from Andre Ethier gave the Dodgers a two-run cushion, but they wouldn’t need it — Kenley Jansen struck out Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond looking and got Chad Tracy to roll one to first. Ball game. The next day, Matt Kemp would play his only game during the winning streak to help Clayton Kershaw and Co. wax Jordan Zimmermann, and the winning streak had reached seven games.
Going back to Jansen for a second, his dominance highlights two underrated points about the Dodgers season. The first is Jansen himself. Since his 2010 debut, we have come to expect lights out pitching from the 25-year-old Curacao native. But his success this season was far from assured. Jansen had dealt with an irregular heartbeat in the early part of his career, and had to undergo heart surgery last November. Everything has turned out fine for him, but as someone who watched the Reggie Lewis saga play out in real time, Jansen’s issues freaked me out. I think we may be taking for granted just how incredible it is that Jansen has pitched at all this year, never mind the fact that he’s been mowing people down. He is one of the five best relievers in baseball, and will be a great weapon for the Dodgers should they reach October.
Of course, Jansen also needs to be put in the position to do the most good for his club. And Don Mattingly’s willingness to put the better pitcher in the higher leverage role has also been a pleasant surprise. When Brandon League scored his big contract this past winter, it was sort of assumed that he would be the closer for the foreseeable future. Especially since he had a manager in Mattingly who is in his last guaranteed year on the job and would seemingly want to tread lightly with his boss. And for a while that’s how things played out. It took Mattingly until June to make the switch, but really it was still a fairly quick transformation. I mean, League only blew four saves. Plenty of closers have blown more and survived with their jobs intact, be they on good teams or bad. Perhaps the desperation motivated Mattingly. After all, when the changeover took place, the Dodgers were still in last place. Things have been much rosier since — for the team, for Jansen and even for League. At the time of his demotion he had a 6.00 ERA. Since he’s sporting a 3.31 ERA. He’s not striking out a lot of guys, but then he never has before either. His GB/FB is up from 1.36 through June 10 to 1.90 since.
The streak had reached eight games without the Dodgers facing much of a deficit. Two runs was their largest deficit in the first eight games, and in more than half they didn’t trail at all. So when they suddenly found themselves down 8-3 after six innings on July 23rd, it was a good test, and one that the club passed. Perhaps they wouldn’t have found themselves in the situation if they had refrained from boarding the Carlos Marmol wagon, but hopefully the recent signing of Brian Wilson will make Marmol expendable.
Marmol failed to stem the bleeding opened up by starter Chris Capuano, who had an off-day. That the Dodgers couldn’t break through and support the pitching staff on a day when they were opposed by the fungible Todd Redmond had to be frustrating. They would take out their frustration on the Blue Jays’ bullpen. The comeback started innocently enough — a single, single, wild pitch, walk, walk, single sequence narrowed the deficit to 8-6. But when Toronto brought in the artist formerly known as Darren Oliver for the eighth, the fireworks began. Gonzalez and Ethier both smoked line drive homers off of the lefty. It was one of just five times in Oliver’s 523-game relief career that he had allowed two homers in an outing, and the first such time since 2008. And in the other four outings he recorded at least four outs each time. In other words, that sort of thing just doesn’t happen to Oliver.
For all the attention that Ramirez and Puig have been given — and they deserve every bit of it — not enough has been said about Gonzalez. That’s par for the course, he has always been an overlooked player. And if you look at his triple-slash numbers and wOBA from this year and last, they are nearly identical. But because he is now playing full-time in a tougher offensive environment than he did last year, his wRC+ has rebounded from 116 to 127. This has vaulted him back to being one of the 10-best first basemen from a wRC+ perspective. As the team’s most consistent left-handed hitter — no one on the team has more plate appearances against lefties than Gonzalez — it’s been important that he has not regressed further.
Beating the Elite
When the road trip rolled into St. Louis last night, it put into stark relief the fact that none of the teams that LA had left in its wake during the streak — the Giants, Dbacks, Nationals, Blue Jays and Cubs — were particularly good. The best any of them rank in today’s incarnation of the FanGraphs Standings page is 15th. It’s likely the Dbacks ranked a little better back when they and the Dodgers played, but probably not by much. The Cardinals, however, rank sixth today, and have been a top-five team in the standings for much of the season. The matchup was marquee in nature, as Adam Wainwright was squaring off with Zack Greinke. No pitcher in baseball, and few actual players have been more valuable than has Wainwright, but the Dodgers hung a bad start on him. It was still a quality start, but his 54 game score ranked 16th out of 24 this year.
We don’t want to get too carried away with this winning streak. For one, winning streaks can be just a balancing of random events that conspired against the team earlier in the season, and the Dodgers had plenty of bad things happen to them in the early going. Their pitching staff had a rash of injuries earlier in the season, and that was around the time when their playoff odds dipped under 10%. The staff getting healthier combined with the ascension of Puig and return of Ramirez have made them formidable, but in reality they were always a very talented club. With the winning streak, their playoff odds are now up near 90% and they seem a lock for the postseason. According to Cool Standings, only the Braves and Tigers have better odds at winning their division. We have spent a lot of time gesticulating about the NL Central, but during this winning streak the Dodgers have become not just a contender for the postseason, but a favorite.
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