LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Dodgers mowed through the regular season with a franchise-record 106 victories and stand as favorites to reach the World Series for a third consecutive fall. They trailed only the Houston Astros in run differential, led the National League in OPS and paced the entire sport in ERA.
“Top to bottom,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “it’s the best team we’ve had.”
And health, it seems, is on their side.
Third baseman Justin Turner and late-inning reliever Joe Kelly, two of the Dodgers’ biggest injury concerns heading into October, each went through important workouts from Dodger Stadium late Tuesday afternoon and were deemed ready for the National League Division Series. Game 1 is Thursday against the Washington Nationals at 5:37 p.m. PT on TBS.
Turner, who spent the last week of the regular season nursing a back injury, took ground balls and later hit in a simulated game. Roberts said he feels “very confident that he’ll be able to perform at his level come Thursday.”
Kelly, who pitched in only one of the team’s last nine games with what Roberts vaguely described as an “overall body situation,” threw a 20-pitch bullpen session that convinced the Dodgers he will be unrestricted in the postseason.
Rich Hill, who recovered from elbow and knee injuries just in time to vie for a spot on the playoff roster, will be the Dodgers’ fourth starter. Hill combined to throw five innings in two starts last week and is stretched out to about four innings at the moment. The team already has decided who will start each of the first three games, but Roberts — addressing the media while the NL wild-card game was ongoing — didn’t want to reveal his plans.
The only player missing is rookie outfielder Alex Verdugo, who reaggravated a back injury during a rehab assignment but is hopeful of returning for the NL Championship Series.
The only concern?
How the Dodgers will configure their bullpen, particularly in save situations. All-Star closer Kenley Jansen finished 2019 with career highs in ERA and blown saves, but Roberts said he will not match up in the ninth inning.
“Kenley’s our closer,” Roberts said. “I don’t see that as an option. The goal is to get outs, and he understands that. I think that the way he’s throwing the baseball, he’s shown that recently. … We’ll bet on the results. He’s done it. And I want him to have the ball at the end of the game.”
Kelly, Kenta Maeda, Pedro Baez and lefty specialist Adam Kolarek will make up the group that will form the bridge to Jansen. But the Dodgers’ top three starters — Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Walker Buehler, in no particular order — will have to set the tone. And an offense led by Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Max Muncy and Turner must translate its regular-season dominance into a playoff series against a Nationals team with a fierce starting rotation.
Roberts mentioned the stars in the rotation and the general versatility of the roster as reasons he believes this group might possess the best opportunity to capture the franchise’s first World Series championship since 1988. Given the regular-season success, Roberts believes “we have a chance to be the best team in Dodgers history.”
“Our only goal is to win a championship,” Roberts said. “The fans deserve it, the players deserve it, and we are equipped to accomplish that goal.”