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Second to one: Dodgers win 106 games and a distinction they didn't bargain for

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LOS ANGELES — The reigning World Series champions retained the core of last year’s roster, added a Cy Young contender and an All-Star second baseman at the trade deadline and matched the franchise’s wins record on the season’s final day.

It was a triumphant regular season from the Los Angeles Dodgers in every way but one: Somehow, some way, it wasn’t enough to win their division.

A 10-3 rout of Milwaukee on Sunday afternoon still left the Dodgers one win short in their all-out sprint to catch the high-flying San Francisco Giants for the NL West title. The Dodgers’ hopes vaporized in the middle innings on Sunday as the Giants jumped all over the pitching-bereft San Diego Padres in San Francisco and slammed the door shut on the division race.

The right-field scoreboard at Dodger Stadium already showed the Giants leading 7-1 when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled ace Walker Buehler after five strong innings. An hour later, the Giants were already donning NL West championship caps and T-shirts in front of their dugout as the Dodgers game entered the ninth inning.

“You have to give credit to the Giants,” Roberts said. “They had an even better regular season. We’re perennial, annual National League West champions and they took it from us.”

Best wild-card team ever

Had the Dodgers won and the Giants lost on Sunday, the teams would have posted matching records of 106-56 and met for a Game 163 in San Francisco on Monday night with the division title at stake. The Dodgers instead will have to survive nine innings of single-elimination randomness against a red-hot opponent to keep their World Series hopes alive.

Awaiting the Dodgers in the NL wild-card game are the always-dangerous St. Louis Cardinals, who reeled off 17 straight wins in September before clinching a playoff berth and taking their foot off the throttle. Win, and the Dodgers earn an NLDS crack at the Giants. Endure an ill-timed bad call or unlucky bounce, and the Dodgers’ 106-win season could be over before a real playoff series is played.

Dodgers second baseman Trea Turner has played in wild-card games before with the Washington Nationals. Asked if those single-elimination games are scary, he confidently smiled and said, “I don’t know about scary. It’s fun.”

“It’s a Game 7,” Turner added. “It’s about perspective. If anybody asked you if you want to play a one-game playoff game to try to win a World Series, at the beginning of the year, you’d take it.”

Whatever happens in the playoffs, the Dodgers already own a little unwanted history: They are the first team in major-league history to ever win 106 games without securing a division title. Only 10 second-place teams had previously ever won 100-plus games. Only the 1909 Chicago Cubs and 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers had won as many as 104.

Adding to Sunday’s frustration for the Dodgers is an ill-timed injury suffered by their leading home-run hitter. Max Muncy exited Sunday’s game with what the Dodgers are calling a “left elbow injury” after he and Milwaukee’s Jace Peterson collided at first base.

The injury occurred in the top of the third inning after Peterson hit a slow dribbler in front of home plate. The combination of a tailing throw from Dodgers catcher Will Smith and Peterson running inside the baseline put Muncy’s outstretched glove arm in the runner’s path.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said that Muncy underwent X-rays and other testing on his left elbow and the results were “unclear.” Roberts described it as “very unlikely” that Muncy would be available against the Cardinals or for a potential NLDS against the Giants.

“I’m not going to close the door on Max,” Roberts said, “but right now it certainly doesn’t look great.”

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 01: Trea Turner #6 of the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrates as he rounds the bases after hitting a grand slam against the Milwaukee Brewers during the fifth inning at Dodger Stadium on October 01, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
Trea Turner and the Dodgers have been unstoppable since the trade deadline, but they weren't able to catch the Giants. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)

A pennant race for the ages

In a way, it was fitting that the Giants and Dodgers both won on the final day of the regular season. That happened often during an epic pennant race.

In April, after an offseason arms race for the ages, many predicted the NL West would produce baseball’s most turbo-charged pennant race. The surprise was that the division rival who rose up to challenge the Dodgers was not the star-studded Padres.

While the underachieving Padres collapsed under the weight of injuries, inconsistency and high expectations, the unheralded Giants ascended to the top of the division in late May and kept on mashing the gas pedal. For four months, they withstood every Dodgers charge, fueled by the reemergence of 30-something cornerstones Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt and Farhan Zaidi’s Midas touch identifying talent on the margins.

LaMonte Wade Jr. arrived via trade in February in exchange for a reliever who has since been released three times this season. Wade has earned the nickname “Late Night LaMonte” for his flurry of clutch hits and his .571 batting average in the ninth inning or later.

Darin Ruf spent three seasons in Korea before signing a minor-league contract with the Giants last year. Ruf has blossomed into a power-hitting pinch-hitter and versatile platoon player who will start at first base during the playoffs while Belt is injured.

Three of the Giants’ four most reliable starting pitchers are free-agent acquisitions signed to affordable one-year contracts. Their bullpen features an array of developmental success stories and bargain pickups.

That deep, resilient group held off the talent-laden, playoff-proven Dodgers over the course of a gripping two-month sprint to the finish. On the morning of Aug. 1, the Dodgers awoke with a record of 63-43 and a three-game deficit in the NL West standings. They finished the regular season on a 42-13 tear … and gained a whopping two games on the Giants.

A rare Giants loss on Saturday gave the Dodgers a glimmer of hope they could yet salvage the division. Then Giants ace Logan Webb personally stamped that out on Sunday by homering, reaching base three times and throwing seven strong innings.

In a sign of grudging respect to their rivals to the north, a sellout Dodger Stadium crowd chanted “Giants S—, Giants S—” during the late innings on Sunday afternoon.

The Dodgers may yet get the shot at the Giants that their fans crave. But because they won 106 games and not 107, they must survive nine high-stakes innings against the Cardinals first.

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