LOS ANGELES — Not long after Game 7 of last fall’s World Series, Kenley Jansen was back at Dodger Stadium to work out.
The memories were too fresh.
“It took me awhile,” the closer said of absorbing the Dodgers’ loss in baseball’s final game last year. “To be honest with you, I came here a week after and worked out for a weekend. I started to get pissed off and angry. I just walked away.
“It took me at least three weeks. I think when I went home to spend time with my friends and family that kind of took care of it. I didn’t think about it no more.”
The laid-back island life in his native Curacao might have been just what Jansen needed to leave the loss to the Houston Astros in the past. His teammate, Justin Turner, certainly had his own distractions – he was one of six Dodgers to get married during the offseason.
But Turner doesn’t ever expect to forget the feeling of disappointment that came with falling one game short of a championship.
“It’s hard to put that loss behind us. I don’t think that’s ever going to go away, I think, for the rest of my life,” he said recently. “You get to Game 7 and fall one game short of winning your first World Series – that one hurts.
“But the four years I’ve been here, every year we’ve inched a little bit closer to winning that World Series. Last year we were one game shy. The same group of guys is coming back. … A lot of guys in there are hungry, want to put in the work to win one more game next year.”
That hunger – maybe more so than short-term memory loss – might be the most important baggage the Dodgers will take with them to Arizona this week when they open spring training as the National League’s defending champions.
Baseball’s champions have experienced World Series hangovers the following season – the Chicago Cubs had a losing record at the All-Star break last year. But the disappointment of falling short seems to be the best hangover cure.
Only one National League team has repeated as a pennant-winner in the past 20 years – the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies. In the eight years since those Phillies went to back-to-back World Series, the World Series champs have won an average of only 84 games the following season. Only three even made the playoffs the following year and last year’s Cubs were the first defending champions to win their own division since those Phillies.
The losing team in the past eight World Series, however, has won an average of 94 games the season after its disappointment. All eight made the playoffs and six won division titles in those follow-up seasons.
Moreover, the last five teams before the Dodgers to lose in the ultimate game – Game 7 of the World Series – recovered well enough to average 98.6 wins the next season (three won 100 or more). All five made the playoffs, four won their division and one (the 2015 Kansas City Royals) came back to win the World Series the following year.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts went through his own grieving process over the winter, replaying the Series and trying to think “could we have done something different” to change the outcome. Ultimately, he accepted that the results weren’t what the Dodgers wanted but “I just don’t have any regrets” about the decisions he made.
Roberts will greet his players at Camelback Ranch having done his research. He reached out to people affiliated with the Golden State Warriors and Seattle Seahawks (he would not say exactly who) to pick their brains about dealing with disappointment in their sport’s ultimate game.
After losing in Game 7 of the NBA Finals in 2016, the Warriors came back to beat the same team (the Cleveland Cavaliers) in the 2017 Finals. The Seahawks went to consecutive Super Bowls, winning one and losing the second in painful fashion (Malcolm Butler played in that one).
“It’s something I think you do have to address, but you can’t kind of let it carry over into this season,” Roberts said of his takeaways from those conversations. “In one sense, they took for granted there wasn’t going to be a hangover and it has carried over a couple years after. In the other sense, use it for motivation but keep the focus on the following year. But don’t forget the pain of the previous finals.
“I think the great thing about our guys is it’s the same nucleus – and even bigger than the nucleus – coming back. So there’s an understanding of what it took to get to that point and there’s still a strong desire to win a championship … and that’s not going to change.”
Indeed, the group gathering in Glendale over the next week (the first full-squad workout is next Monday) is remarkably familiar.
Yu Darvish, Brandon Morrow and Tony Watson are the most significant of only a handful of subtractions from last fall’s World Series roster. Most were part of the NLCS against the Cubs in 2016 as well.
With few issues to resolve or new faces to assimilate, it will be easier for Roberts to lighten the spring workload on his core group, something he plans to do to address the physical aftereffects of a long season – 212 games from spring training through October for the Dodgers last season – and a short offseason.
The mental toll of last season’s unfinished business is not something that seems to concern Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi.
“I think every team says, ‘We’re not going to have a hangover’ and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t,” Zaidi said. “I can’t imagine a group more motivated than this group is.”
Here are five questions the Dodgers will try to resolve over the next six weeks:
WHAT TO DO WITH MATT KEMP?
If the former All-Star actually dons a Dodgers uniform again when position players report for full-squad workouts, it might be the biggest surprise of an unusual offseason. If the Dodgers can’t find a way to move Kemp (and at least some of his salary), his presence and status will be the story of the spring. For now, Roberts and Zaidi are saying Kemp will be part of an “open competition” for playing time in left field.
HOW WILL THIS YEAR’S VERSION OF THE BULLPEN BE STRUCTURED?
Two very important veterans have been removed – Morrow (signed as a free agent by the Chicago Cubs) and Watson (an unsigned free agent). Left-hander Scott Alexander and right-handed starter-turned-reliever Tom Koehler have been added to a mix that also includes Josh Fields, Pedro Baez, Tony Cingrani, Yimi Garcia, Adam Liberatore and, of course, Jansen. The process of sorting through that group and formulating a plan on who to use when will begin in spring training – and probably continue well into the season.
WHO IS THE NO. 1 CATCHER?
The answer might be another question – what’s wrong with a No. 1 and 1A? The combination of Yasmani Grandal and Austin Barnes was very productive for the Dodgers last season. Barnes took over the playing time as Grandal slumped late in the season and started 13 of the Dodgers’ 15 post-season games. With free agency looming next winter, Grandal will be motivated to reclaim his primacy. “That was a decision we made because Austin was playing better,” Roberts said of his preference for Barnes in the final months of last season. “I know Yasmani is coming here and expecting to win his job back. They both look at it as a competition, and that’s a good thing.”
IS ANDREW TOLES HEALTHY?
All indications are that Toles has recovered from the torn ACL in his right knee that ended his 2017 season in early May. If Toles proves to be healthy over the course of spring training, he figures to fill a significant role in the Dodgers’ outfield picture, likely being the left-handed side of a left-field platoon (and thus get the lion’s share of playing time). “He’s a dynamic player,” Zaidi said recently. “He was terrific for us in ’16. I anticipate there’s going to be some rust, going that long without facing live pitching. But we’re excited to have him in camp and get him into games to see how he looks because he brought a different element to this team before he went down. It’ll be exciting to have him back.”
HOW READY IS WALKER BUEHLER?
The Dodgers have already made it clear they will be wearing the same kid gloves to handle Buehler that they wore with Julio Urias the past two years. Zaidi said recently he does not expect Buehler to start the season in the Dodgers’ big-league rotation and his workload will be limited – he had Tommy John surgery just 2½ years ago and has thrown 103 innings as a professional since returning. But Buehler is expected to make an impact at some point this season. Spring training could give a glimpse of how much and how soon.
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