BOSTON — Long ago, before his Los Angeles Dodgers stumbled, then gained their footing, then slipped once more, then spent an entire September scratching and clawing, fighting for another division title and eventually another pennant, Justin Turner embraced a harsh reality:
Nothing will ever ease the pain.
The Dodgers begin a star-laden, highly anticipated World Series showdown against the juggernaut Boston Red Sox on Tuesday. It is yet another opportunity to claim the championship trophy that has eluded this franchise for 30 years. But nothing the Dodgers do the rest of this month can erase what took place 355 days ago, when the Houston Astros defeated them in Game 7.
“We can win two or three World Series in the future,” Turner said, “and I’ll probably remember losing the Game 7 more than winning the championships.”
The culprit was actually Game 5. The Dodgers jumped to a 3-0 lead with Clayton Kershaw on the mound, a premium opportunity to capture a pivotal swing game in the 2017 World Series. But they blew three leads and lost in 10 innings. They came back to win Game 6 but couldn’t recover from Yu Darvish’s five-run meltdown in Game 7.
“We had plenty of chances,” Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal said. “The whole series came down to a few pitches.”
“It stung, man,” starter-turned-reliever Alex Wood said. “It stung for a long time.”
Dodgers players did their best to distance themselves from the memory in the offseason, but they couldn’t keep from bumping into each other. Joc Pederson, Ross Stripling, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Austin Barnes, Turner and Wood all got married over the winter, constantly bringing everybody together again.
The World Series loss was a frequent topic of conversation early, but it quickly dissolved, replaced by the typical camaraderie of a team that grew so close throughout the journey.
Wood took solace in the routine he witnessed.
“This is one of the hardest-working teams that I’ve ever been on, been a part of,” he said. “Seeing guys get their work in on Saturday mornings before the wedding, training six days a week from basically the time we finished the season until we showed up for spring training — there’s a reason we’re back here. We worked for this.”
Kenley Jansen began his workouts almost immediately. He returned to Dodger Stadium a week after the season finished, went into the weight room and found himself growing angrier as the days passed. He liked the feeling and decided he would hold on to it. While most of his teammates did their best to forget, Jansen vowed to remember.
“You let that motivate you, that one game that you fell short,” Jansen said. “You let that motivate you because that stuff will make you better.”
But it took a while to carry over. The Dodgers started slowly in 2018, losing 26 of their first 42 games to fall 10 games below .500 on May 16. Jansen wasn’t himself, Turner was on the disabled list, Corey Seager was lost for the season, and the entire group fell into a collective funk. Jansen spent the rest of the season wondering why a team this good, this deep, could fall so far so early, even after the Dodgers reclaimed their place among the National League’s best.
Madson’s message: “Welcome to the hangover.”
“I started laughing,” Jansen recalled. “I said, ‘I guess so.'”
Ian Kinsler, now a second baseman for the Red Sox, understands the realities of the proverbial World Series hangover, even if his teams appeared immune to them. Kinsler played on a Texas Rangers club that lost in the Fall Classic in 2010, then rode a 9-1 start to another World Series appearance in 2011. Summoning the motivation proved difficult nonetheless.
“It’s tough, man,” Kinsler said. “You get to spring training the next year, and there’s 3,000 people in the stands, and you just came off a World Series where there’s 50,000, 60,000 screaming, ridiculous people. You’re doing media days like this, and there’s so much attention, and you go back to Glendale, or wherever they are, and it’s like a walk in the park, really. It becomes difficult in that aspect. But a team that goes to the World Series understands where they want to be at the end of the year. It plays itself out.”
It played itself out for the Dodgers, and they believe they’re better for it.
Last year, they held a 21-game lead in the NL West before the end of August and coasted through September. This year, they overcame a 16-26 start, then a 3-9 stretch in the middle of August. They swept a weekend series on the road to end their regular season, beat the Colorado Rockies in a one-game tiebreaker to avoid a wild-card game, eliminated the Atlanta Braves in four games in the NLDS and outlasted the Milwaukee Brewers in seven in the NLCS.
“Nothing really came easy for us this year,” Turner said. “Our backs were against the wall. It was a must-win every game.”
The urgency that came from the slow start turned out to be a blessing for these Dodgers. Suddenly, the thought of returning to the World Series couldn’t consume them.
“We just had to survive,” Grandal said. “We were in survival mode since basically halfway through the year.”
Kershaw, who will draw the Game 1 start opposite Chris Sale, called last year’s World Series “a good experience,” then stopped himself.
“Not a good experience,” he said from the podium before Monday’s workout at Fenway Park. “An experience.”
The Dodgers are only the sixth team in history to fall 10 games below .500 and reach the World Series in that season, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau.
The most recent team to lose the World Series and then win it the following year was Madson’s Royals, who fell to the San Francisco Giants in 2014 and came back to beat the New York Mets in 2015. Before that, it hadn’t been accomplished since the 1989 Oakland Athletics, who lost to the Dodgers in 1988 — L.A.’s last baseball championship — then beat the Giants.
If the Dodgers beat the Red Sox, they will become the first NL team since the 1944 St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series the year after losing the World Series.
Even that can’t eliminate the heartache.
“There’s nothing you can do about it,” Turner said. “It’s already done. It’s there. And I don’t think anybody in this room who was there last year will ever forget that. But what we can do is learn from it, move forward and pull out all the experience of it and take it into this series.”