Former Brooklyn Dodger and MLB manager Gene Mauch once said, “Most one run games are lost, not won.”
The three-way race for the NL West Division title is heating up, and the Dodgers find themselves 3 1/2 games back and in third place with 35 games remaining in the regular season. It’s a little too close for comfort for the reigning NL West champs, and some frustrating one-run losses could be the difference between getting a shot at getting back to the World Series and sitting the entire postseason out this October. The Dodgers are 17-21 in one-run games this season, and they’re 2-7 in one-run affairs in the month of August so far. It’s been a season of missed opportunities.
Not only have the Dodgers found themselves in numerous one-run games, they haven’t been able to find much success in them due primarily to underperforming offense and an unreliable bullpen. Last season the Dodgers routinely came back to win close games. There was a different hero each night, and the team seemed to never be completely out of striking distance even with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. This season, the Dodgers aren’t finding ways to win those close games. Those frustrating, often late-inning losses, could come back to haunt them at the conclusion to the regular season next month.
A World Series caliber team finds ways to win the close ones, but getting to 104 wins takes a little bit of luck thrown in. It’s no surprise that the Dodgers and Astros, two teams who battled all the way to Game 7 of the World Series, locked horns this season. The Dodgers and Astros split two one-run games earlier this month. Last year, the Astros were 19-13 during the regular season in one-run games. This year the Astros are 16-22 in one-run games and have the Oakland A’s to fend off in the AL West.
Last year the Dodgers had the best record in baseball, 104-58, and were 25-19 in one-run games. Only two teams made the playoffs with losing records in one-run games, the Yankees (18-26) and Twins (15-18).
The Mariners, who defeated the Dodgers 5-4 last Saturday in Seattle, have had incredible success in one-run games this year with a record of 31-17. If you’re wondering, the record for most one-run wins in a season is the 1978 Giants who won 42 one-run games. The best winning percentage in one-run games in modern MLB history was the Texas Rangers who went 36-11 (.766) in 2016 when they ended up with the AL West division title.
The 2018 Dodgers should channel the 1890 Brooklyn Bridegrooms who were 14-4 (.778) in one-run games with an overall record of 86-43 (.667). They went on to win the National League pennant.
You certainly need to have a good bullpen to win one-run games, and the Dodgers’ bullpen was a mess during the time they were without closer Kenley Jansen. Jansen was on the DL with an irregular heartbeat this month for nearly two weeks. The Dodgers’ bullpen has blown 23 saves, three fewer than the Giants who lead the majors with 26 blown saves and 7 more than last season.
Even Jansen, to a degree, has struggled a bit this year and has blown 3 saves himself. Kenley’s still a dominating force to be reckoned with in the ninth inning, but even the big guy’s numbers are down from last year. His K/9 is down from 14.4 to 10.2, his BB/9 is up from 0.9 to 2.3. He’s nowhere near his ridiculous strikeout-to-walk-ratio of 15.57 from last year.
Jansen’s health is the most important of course, but his performance during the season affects the team dramatically, especially in close games. Although the time without Kenley was rough going, the bullpen hasn’t been as dominate as last year even with Kenley in it.
The Dodgers have been able to stay afloat with excellent starting pitching (3.27 ERA, 9.38 K/9) and a bunch of home runs (175).
There’s no exact formula or science to win one-run games, and there’s no way to predict just how many close contests a team may wind up in. On any given night a win may be decided by any one or combination of the following: excellent starting pitching, rock-solid defense, a stingy bullpen, a sharp managerial decision, an aggressive hit-and-run play, a well-executed safety squeeze, a blocked ball, a gutsy stolen base, a heads-up tag, or even just some good old luck.
The results of one-run games are often random, but good teams find ways to win them. A shaky bullpen and all the injuries have played a large part in the Dodgers’ 21 one-run losses this season, but the streaky offense has perhaps been the biggest contributing factor to their breakdown in these close games.
How have the Mariners had so much success in their one-run games? Their bullpen isn’t that great (4.02 ERA, 1.26 WHIP). Their offense is ninth in the AL in runs scored (525). Their defense rates below average, and they haven’t had Robinson Cano.
The Mariners are hitting .256 overall as a team, but in high-leverage situations so far this year, they’re hitting a major-league best .300. The Dodgers are hitting .231 in high-leverage situations this year. That’s 37 points lower than last year’s team. They’re simply less clutch this year.
With a long and twisting 162-game season, there’s always games that each team wishes they could get back. Usually these close losses are the ones that hurt those most and stay with us the longest. The Dodgers haven’t found a way to conquer these close games, and they’re running out of time to find the magic they had last year.