SAN DIEGO — Their pace may have been a little slower than normal — celebrating pennants can do that to a team, especially one out of practice in winning.
But it was a happy group of Dodgers personnel that walked into the visiting clubhouse at Petco Park in San Diego early Friday afternoon as the newly crowned champions of the National League West.
“Nice to have a clear year,” said general manager Ned Colletti, presumably talking about the departure of the previous ownership and the financial dominance the Guggenheim Group has provided for Colletti to assemble a World Series contender.
But it isn’t just the money and the star players who’ve turned the Dodgers into one of the best teams in baseball.
Sometimes it’s simply the type of player, the ones who step in and change the course of a season from virtual disaster to a shot at baseball’s Holy Grail.
The Nick Puntos, Skip Schumakers, Jerry Hairstons and Chris Withrows need to get as much credit as Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke for the turnaround that has the Dodgers 11 postseason wins from their first World Series championship since 1988.
It has been well-chronicled for the past few months, but for reference purposes here it is again: The Dodgers, beset by injuries, poor play and shaky relief pitching, started the season with a 30-42 record.
Then in one of the most unlikely reversals of fortune in baseball history, Ramirez got healthy, Puig was called up from Double-A and Kenley Jansen was made the permanent closer. And the club went on a 42-8 run, one of the greatest streaks in sports history, let alone baseball.
On June 21, the Dodgers trailed the Diamondbacks by 9.5 games. When they clinched the pennant in Arizona on Thursday, they had a 10.5 game lead over Arizona — a 20-game swing in the standings in just 12 weeks.
And a lot of the incredible success is due to the fact that guys who weren’t supposed to play much — or even be with the team in Puig’s case — stepped in and played like top-of-the-line starters.
“I feel that one of the biggest reason we were able to win,” Hairston said. “You had guys like Nick and Skip who were ready to play every day and were great when they did. And even when we had four healthy outfielders, no one complained about having to sit out.
“The chemistry on this team is amazing.”
Manager Don Mattingly agrees.
“There’s no doubt that was a major factor — if not the major factor — why we never quit, never gave up,” said the manager, whose job was on the line for an uncomfortable stretch in early summer. “We did have some tough situations, but we got through them as a team — off the field as well as on it. I’m very happy with the way the guys responded all year long.”
Mattingly was under constant scrutiny as the manager of a $200 million club, but he remained the straightforward type of guy he’s been as a player, coach and now as the lead man in the dugout.
On that list of credit, Donnie Baseball belongs near the top of the list, calling out players like Puig when necessary, and sticking up for his entire team when asked about the D-Backs being upset because the Dodgers celebrated their pennant-clinching win by taking a dip in the Chase Field swimming pool.
“The one thing I don’t want is for it to take away from what we’ve accomplished,” he said before Friday night’s game in San Diego. “That’s a celebration in the making since spring, and these guys are like Little Leaguers celebrating at that point. I don’t think they meant to disrespect anyone. The reaction has gone a little too far for me.”
Mattingly won’t have to worry about Arizona’s hurt feelings or playing any meaningful games until the National League Division Series begins. He knows that the playoffs are a totally different world for a first-time manager, and he intends to be as ready as he can.
“The staff and I will go over who needs rest and who needs to play the next few games,” Mattingly said. “We want to have everybody as healthy as possible for the playoffs.”
Like Colletti said, without the trace of a smile.
“This is just the first step. Just the first step toward what we want to do.”