Memorable season overshadowed by abrupt October

Year filled with highlights and player awards fizzles in postseason

Memorable season overshadowed by abrupt October

LOS ANGELES -- Club chairman Mark Walter pushed an equipment trunk out of the clubhouse after his Dodgers were bounced from the playoffs in St. Louis. A picture worth a billion words.

For $235 million in payroll, Walter got a second consecutive National League West title, but a first-round exit from the playoffs can only be viewed as a step backward for the deep-pocketed, high-profile Guggenheim ownership group.

First a windfall TV deal gone awry, then another loss to the Cardinals, leaving already frustrated fans distraught as the franchise World Series drought extends to 26 seasons.

So much went right for the Dodgers until the sour ending. Clayton Kershaw put together what certainly will be his third Cy Young season and possibly the first MVP year for an NL starting pitcher since Bob Gibson in 1968. Zack Greinke set a personal high with 17 wins. Adrian Gonzalez won an RBI title, Dee Gordon revived his career to lead MLB in stolen bases and triples. The team never had a losing streak longer than three games and for the second consecutive year rallied from a 9 1/2-game deficit. All the while, manager Don Mattingly was the ringmaster of a clubhouse circus, massaging egos while manipulating lineups.

Kershaw and Josh Beckett pitched no-hitters. Matt Kemp became Matt Kemp again. Justin Turner turned into one of the best bench players the Dodgers have had. Juan Uribe posted his highest batting average. A healthy Carl Crawford was one of the best second-half hitters in the game. Kenley Jansen was one of the most efficient closers in the league. And Yasiel Puig, for all of his drama, was a highlight film ready to happen at any moment.

But a season that opened with such high expectations in Australia ended in such despair in America's heartland, as the weak-link bullpen undermined managerial confidence and dictated decision making, from rosters to pitching changes.

The Dodgers overcame fewer injuries than they've had in some recent years. The biggest ones made Chad Billingsley unavailable all year, felled Beckett midway through the season after his surprising comeback from thoracic outlet surgery, cost the bullpen Chris Withrow and were just nagging enough to keep Hanley Ramirez from the kind of season that would have assured him of free-agent riches.

Although the team defense ranked near the bottom of the league, as it often does, team offense and pitching ranked in the top four. The Dodgers were MLB's best road team and dominated within the division (50-26), but tied for the league high with 12 extra-inning losses, another indictment of the bullpen.

So the Dodgers made back-to-back postseason appearances for only the seventh time in franchise history, had the most wins since 2009 and made the playoffs for the fifth time in Ned Colletti's nine years as general manager. 

Record: 94-68, first in the NL West

Defining moment: After a June 4 loss that left the Dodgers 31-30 and 8 1/2 games out, Mattingly called out his club for not pulling in the same direction. The deficit would reach 10 games, but by June 30 the club was 11 games above .500 and in first place. In late July, with all of his outfielders finally healthy, Mattingly settled on Kemp in right field, Puig in center, Crawford in left and Andre Ethier on the bench. On July 27 the Dodgers moved back into first place and stayed there the rest of the season.

What went right: Kershaw/Greinke again provided a throwback to the Sandy Koufax/Don Drysdale days of dual aces, when both clubs come to the ballpark pretty much knowing how the game will turn out. Kershaw was even better than before, and Greinke set a personal high for wins. Gonzalez won an RBI title, only the third in history for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Kemp, who needed the first half to shake off the rust of three operations, regained all of his superstar tools except running speed in the second half to provide protection for Gonzalez. Once all of the outfielders were healthy, Mattingly settled on Kemp, Puig and Crawford as starters and the team took off.

Gordon, whose shortstop career hit a dead end, was reborn as a second baseman, disruptive leadoff hitter and stolen-base champ. Turner came off the scrap heap to produce one of the best seasons ever for a Dodgers bench player. Dan Haren delivered 13 wins as a fourth starter. Once healthy, Crawford poured it on in the second half. Uribe had the highest batting average of his career.

What went wrong: Brian Wilson returned with a two-year, $19-million contract in hand and 5 mph less on the radar gun. That left the club scrambling all year for setup relief to get to Jansen. Along the way, Withrow blew out, J.P. Howell did what he could until weakening in September and it all ultimately resulted in early elimination from the playoffs. There were no in-season acquisitions to address the bullpen, only trades for journeymen starters Kevin Correia and Roberto Hernandez that made little positive impact. Management made those deals because lack of organizational depth couldn't adequately replace the season-long loss of Billingsley, then the midseason loss of Beckett, who had already delivered more quality starts than anybody expected.

On offense, the club kept waiting for Ramirez to repeat his '13 form, but he was never healthy enough to do it consistently.

Biggest surprise: A non-roster invitee, Turner produced one of the great seasons by a Dodgers utility man. He had the rare ability to step in and start for extended periods at several infield spots, while also the calm to excel as a pinch-hitter in pressure situations. The Dodgers are grateful the Mets cast him aside for reasons that remain a mystery.

Hitter of the Year: While Puig's dynamism and drama drew the spotlight and a starting All-Star berth, Gonzalez was the only steady run producer in the star-studded lineup. Take the MLB RBI champ out of this batting order and the Dodgers season would have ended in September, or sooner. If he's not everyone's idea of a prototype team leader, he sure was quick to get in the face of Yadier Molina when the Cardinals' catcher got into the head of Puig in the playoffs.

Pitcher of the Year: As if he wasn't already elite with two Cy Youngs, Kershaw became historic with a fourth consecutive ERA title that helped put him in line to be the first starting pitcher to win an NL MVP Award since Gibson in 1968. Unfortunately, a phenomenal season will be remembered as much for his dejected knockout in the NLDS, leaving Busch Stadium with another monkey on his back.

Rookie of the Year: Miguel Rojas, shortstop. All you need to know about the Dodgers' Minor League system is that Rojas wins this award with a .466 OPS, and he didn't even come up through the system. A journeyman Minor Leaguer, he was reliable as Ramirez's defensive caddy. He sure got Kershaw's vote for saving the lefty's no-hitter.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.