LOS ANGELES, Calif. - The Dodgers began the season poorly and then soared from last to first during a torrid 50-game stretch to make the playoffs for the first time in four years. The way they exited overshadowed it all.
Los Angeles lost the NL championship series 4-2 to St. Louis on Friday night, with NL Cy Young Award favourite Clayton Kershaw turning in a rare clunker on the mound while getting no offence from teammates in a 9-0 defeat.
It wasn't the ending sought by the team with baseball's second-highest payroll at the end of the regular season — more than $236 million. The Dodgers' drought of World Series appearances now extends to 26 years.
"Going through spring, the long season, and then it just comes to a crash, so it's disappointing for all of us," manager Don Mattingly said.
Now, the Dodgers face several decisions in the off-season, starting with Mattingly. He led the team to 92 wins and the NL West title in his contract's final guaranteed season. The 52-year-old manager is 261-226 in three seasons and the team holds a $1.4 million option for next year.
"You all can question this move or that move, but nothing really caught me by surprise," he said about managing in his first playoffs. "I didn't feel overwhelmed by it."
The Dodgers will be discussing new contracts for Kershaw and Hanley Ramirez, the team's best hitter who played hurt during the NLCS.
Kershaw had the major leagues' lowest ERA for the third straight season while pitching a career-high 259 innings between the regular season and the playoffs. He needed 48 pitches to get out of the third inning Friday, when he allowed four runs. The left-hander is entering his final year of salary-arbitration eligibility.
"We had some good moments this year," Kershaw said. "Put together a good streak there toward the middle, but really unless you win the whole thing it doesn't make a difference."
Ramirez has one year left on his contract. He hit .500 in the division series against Atlanta with six RBIs in four games. Then he got plunked by a pitch from Joe Kelly in Game 1 of the NLCS and was never the same. Ramirez broke his left rib and batted just .133, going 2 for 15 against the Cardinals.
Among the team's dozen potential free agents are starters Ricky Nolasco and Edinson Volquez, along with bearded reliever Brian Wilson, who revived his career while bolstering the Dodgers' bullpen. Relievers J.P. Howell and Carlos Marmol could leave, too, as well as infielder Juan Uribe, considered a clubhouse favourite by his teammates.
The Dodgers' bench could be facing a makeover, with veterans Jerry Hairston, Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker and Michael Young all eligible for free agency.
"Whenever a season ends, no matter what, you know this entire group of guys won't be together next year," said catcher A.J. Ellis, whose .316 hitting proved a bright spot against St. Louis. "It's the last time these guys will be together in this room, and that hurts."
Besides Ramirez, outfielder Andre Ethier was slowed by shin splints throughout the playoffs, when the Dodgers didn't have outfielder Matt Kemp. He spent the season on and off the disabled list, although his absence didn't prevent the club's heralded turnaround in July and August.
"I'm really proud of my club," Mattingly said. "I felt like these guys hung in all year long."
Rookie Yasiel Puig injected much-needed energy into the struggling club upon his arrival in early June. He nearly made the All-Star team, and his at-bats became must-see events. But the 22-year-old Cuban defector bottomed out against the Cardinals, going 5-for-22 with 10 strikeouts, and committed two errors in Game 6, when he made a pair of terrible throws and allowed Yadier Molina's single to bounce off his glove and skip away.
"We've got to do a better job of helping him to mature and understand what we want done and the way to do it," Mattingly said.
The Dodgers won the NL West by 11 games over Arizona, their biggest margin since the team moved West from Brooklyn after the 1957 season. But they failed to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Dodgers lost all three of their road games in St. Louis.
"One of the key things is to try to get that home-field advantage so it doesn't happen like this," said infielder Adrian Gonzalez, who batted .300 against the Cardinals. "You can't win if you don't win on the road, especially if you don't have home-field advantage."