MLB playoffs 2023: 5 moments that led to Dodgers' NLDS exit

ByAlden Gonzalez and David Schoenfield ESPN logo
Thursday, October 12, 2023

In the aftermath of another early-round disappointment, this time at the hands of the young, scrappy Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Max Muncy delivered a harsh but accurate summation of the circumstances.

"They were the team that was getting the hits, they were the team that was making the pitches, they were making all the plays," Muncy said after the Diamondbacks' three-game sweep of the Dodgers. "Just all across the board, they dominated us."

Through 27 innings of a surprisingly anticlimactic National League Division Series, the Dodgers never had a lead. A D-backs team that finished 16 games worse than them during the regular season jumped all over their starting pitchers, stymied their best hitters and never made the Dodgers feel as if they even had a chance. Before they knew it, it was over.

"Our team was hungry," D-backs manager Torey Lovullo said. "I know it's well-documented that we're a connected team, and I think a connected team is a dangerous team."

The Dodgers have won 100 games four out of the past five years (it's five straight if you stretch their title-winning, COVID-19-shortened season out to 162 games). But they have also been eliminated from the playoffs by a team that was more than a dozen games worse than them during the regular season in four out of the past five years. It was the 2019 Washington Nationals, then the 2021 Atlanta Braves, then the 2022 San Diego Padres and now the 2023 D-backs. Three of those upsets occurred in the NLDS.

The story of this year's collapse was pretty straightforward: The Dodgers, with a severely short-handed rotation, continually fell behind early, and their offense hardly ever came close to making up for it.

Below are the five moments that defined their latest abrupt exit.

Game 1, first inning

What happened:Gabriel Moreno's three-run home run gives the Diamondbacks a 5-0 lead against Clayton Kershaw just five batters into the game

Dodgers' win probability lost: Minus-9%

The Dodgers knew going into the postseason that Kershaw would be limited, but they needed something out of him. They hoped it would be something closer to the solid five or so innings he consistently provided over the past two months of the regular season, even as he pitched through diminished stuff and a sore shoulder.

Instead, the Diamondbacks torched Kershaw in a nightmare first inning for the future Hall of Famer; he exited after one-third of an inning with a 162.0 ERA, arguably the worst postseason start of all time. Arizona's first five hits were all rockets: 115.7 mph, 109.6 mph, 99.4 mph, 105.7 mph and 110.8 mph (that last one was Moreno's home run). After Evan Longoria knocked out Kershaw from the game with an RBI double hit at 98.8 mph, the damage was extensive: Six runs, six hits, six hard-hit balls.

Kershaw's start exemplified how dire the Dodgers' pitching situation was heading into October -- and how, at its current state, this was not the same team that won 100 games for a third straight time.

"Embarrassing," Kershaw later said. "You just feel like you let everybody down."

Game 2, first inning

What happened:Lourdes Gurriel Jr. rips a 104 mph RBI single to center field to cap a three-run inning off Dodgers starter Bobby Miller

Dodgers' win probability lost: Minus-7%

The rookie Miller had a bit of a deer-in-headlights look as he made his postseason debut, and sure enough the Diamondbacks quickly got to him with some small ball. Corbin Carroll led with a walk on a 3-2, 100 mph fastball that was inside. Ketel Marte reached on a bunt single. Tommy Pham loaded the bases with a single, Christian Walker hit a sac fly, Moreno knocked in a run with a groundout and Gurriel finished off the rally.

Even after Kershaw's struggles, the Dodgers had no choice but to put a rookie pitcher in this spot, another indication of the wreckage of their pitching. They had lost Walker Buehler (who couldn't make it back in time from a second Tommy John surgery), Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin (who both required season-ending surgeries), and Julio Urias (who was placed on administrative leave after allegations of domestic violence). The Dodgers' hopes of continually advancing in October rested largely on their promising young starting pitchers thriving in high-pressure environments, and nobody represented that more than Miller, the most talented among them. He seemed to be the only one who had a chance of getting through an opposing lineup a third time -- and he didn't even do it twice.

"I got a little jumpy out there," Miller said. "It caused the command to be a little worse."

Game 2, sixth inning

What happened:Kolten Wong grounds out with the bases loaded against D-backs reliever Ryan Thompson

Dodgers' win probability lost: Minus-12%

The Dodgers had cut a 4-1 deficit to 4-2 and had the bases loaded with one out. Diamondbacks reliever Andrew Saalfrank, with all of 11 career major league innings, struck out James Outman on a 3-2 sinker. That brought up No. 9 hitter Miguel Rojas and the Diamondbacks brought in Thompson -- whom the Rays had released in August -- for the righty-righty matchup. Dave Roberts sent up the lefty-hitting Wong, his third pinch hitter of the inning. Wong had been released by the Mariners in August after hitting .165 for them, although he did hit .300 with the Dodgers in 30 at-bats. Wong looked at two sinkers for strikes and then grounded a third one to first base to end the threat.

The Dodgers never quite figured out their middle infield this season. Gavin Lux, expected to be the everyday shortstop, tore his ACL during spring training and Miguel Vargas, given the second-base job, was unproductive through his first extended run in the major leagues. As the year played out, the Dodgers' most optimal lineup against righties -- so, most of the time -- had Betts playing second base or shortstop so that the left-handed-hitting David Peralta, Outman and Jason Heyward could all play the outfield. And so when the postseason came, the Dodgers carried Wong to give them a left-handed bat off the bench. It meant Wong, a .183/.256/.263 hitter during the regular season, took a really meaningful at-bat in Game 2. It's not what the Dodgers would have hoped for, to say the least.

Game 3, third inning

What happened:Dodgers starter Lance Lynn gives up four solo home runs in a six-batter stretch

Dodgers' win probability lost: Minus-32% (combined)

The Dodgers had so many injury issues with their rotation at the trade deadline that they acquired Lynn, a veteran right-hander with a 6.47 ERA, from the White Sox. He went 7-2 with the Dodgers but allowed 16 home runs in 64 innings -- finishing the season with an MLB-worst 44. Down 0-2 and facing elimination, the Dodgers decided to hold back Ryan Pepiot, initially planned to pitch in tandem with Lynn, to potentially help out Kershaw in Game 4.

It underscored an important point: Yes, the Dodgers were going to be unconventional with their usage. But at some point they needed length from a starting pitcher. Lynn did not come close to providing it. (Neither did anyone else: The 4 innings from their starters in the first three games was the fewest in postseason history. Kershaw, Miller and Lynn were charged with a whopping 13 earned runs in that stretch.) In a record-breaking third inning, the Diamondbacks became the first team to hit four home runs in one inning in a postseason game, all off Lynn. In a span of 17 pitches, Geraldo Perdomo, Marte, Walker and Moreno all homered -- Moreno one pitch after missing by just a few inches on a foul ball.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts vowed to treat Game 3 like a typical Game 7, but he was ultimately a batter or two late in removing Lynn.

"I had some guys ready," Roberts said. "Obviously, I can't predict the future. I try not to be reactionary and get ahead of things. I just can't predict the future. The way he was throwing the baseball, I didn't expect that."

Game 3, eighth inning

What happened:Kevin Ginkel strikes out Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman

Dodgers' win probability lost: Minus-11% (combined)

Trailing 4-2, the Dodgers had one last chance. Ginkel walked Wong to start the inning, and the Dodgers had the top of the order coming up -- a chance to put up a crooked number to tie the score. But Ginkel fanned Betts on a 2-2 slider, keeping Betts hitless for the series; he fanned Freeman on a 1-2 fastball up and away. J.D. Martinez flew out to center field for the third out, and the rally never came to fruition.

"Not what we need to do," Freeman said earlier in the series.

Betts and Freeman, who went a combined 1 for 21 in the NLDS, were the engines that drove the Dodgers' high-powered offense throughout the summer, putting up MVP-caliber seasons and setting the tone -- with their power, their pitch selection and, sneakily, their baserunning -- at the top of the lineup. The Dodgers' offense had depth, but it revolved around Betts and Freeman being highly productive. In some ways, they were not built to survive without it. But Betts slumped through September and Freeman's swing didn't feel right in the days leading up to the postseason. The Dodgers couldn't overcome it.

Betts' loss particularly. When the month of August ended, Betts seemed like the MVP front-runner. But he slumped -- by his standards -- through September, OPS'ing only .718. And he did next to nothing in October. Betts is 2-for-25 in the past two postseason runs -- both of which have ended in early eliminations. Betts, more than anybody else, makes the Dodgers' offense go.

"I feel like I prepared the right way," Betts said. "I just didn't execute anything."

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