So, what happens now?
Well, Don Mattingly is going to have a lot of hard decisions to make every day, much harder decisions than which flavor of Tootsie Pop he’s in the mood for. The Dodgers have time to kill, and the rules say they have to kill it by playing games. There are nine of them left on the regular-season schedule, all of them within the National League West and consequently all of them relatively meaningless.
The Dodgers also have a lot of minor injuries that have to be handled with care, including with Hanley Ramirez and Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. And they also have some not-so-minor ones, including one with Andre Ethier, who is expected to be good to go by the playoffs but for now hasn’t been heard from since last Friday night, when he was pulled from a game with an ankle injury.
Then again, though, those games aren’t as meaningless as they appear, because the Dodgers still would like to gain homefield advantage for at least the National League Division Series and possibly even for the N.L. Championship Series. At 88-65, the Dodgers are 2 1/2 games behind Atlanta for the best record in the league — forget the fraction because ultimately, each team will have played the same number of games, so just focus on the loss column where the Dodgers trail the Braves by three — and they trail St. Louis by one game for home field in the first round. And they are tied with Pittsburgh, which still has a shot at overtaking the Cardinals and winning the Central, and one game ahead of Cincinnati, which also has a shot at winning the Central.
The Dodgers are virtually certain to open against one of those four teams on Oct. 3. It’s just a matter of where.
If the Dodgers can overtake all those teams and finish with the best record in the league, they’ll have home field all the way to the World Series. Perhaps more importantly, they would get to host the wildcard winner, which presumably already would have burned its ace in a one-game wildcard playoff. But it’s also possible their opponent might have burned its ace even if the Dodgers finish with the SECOND-best record, because those three teams in the Central are so closely bunched that there may have to be a tiebreaker game to determine the division winner BEFORE the wildcard game.
So it might seem like the Dodgers can all take a deep breath and relax for a while now. But that isn’t necessarily true for Mattingly. He is the one who has to perform the delicate balancing act over these final nine games — beginning with tonight’s series opener in San Diego — between pursuing a more advantageous playoff seeding; protecting his important players, especially the ones who presently are in a fragile state; and getting all of his players enough playing time and enough at-bats to keep their swings sharp and their timing intact.
It has been a challenging season already for Mattingly, of course. But even with a division title now secured, it isn’t about to get any easier anytime soon.