Day 4 of (at least) 30 baseball book reviews for spring/summer 2020: Not to be a buzz kill, but need a new read on the Dodgers’ 2019 collapse? It’s more than ‘Baby Shark’ attacks and strategy gaffs

Howie-Kendrick_s-grand-slam-gives-Nationals-shocking-NLDS-upset-over-Dodgers

“Buzz Saw: The Improbable Story of How
the Washington Nationals Won the World Series”

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The author:
Jesse Dougherty

The publishing info:
Simon & Schuster
$28
308 pages
Released March 24

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com
At Powells.com
At IndieBound.org
At the author’s internet home.

The review in 90 feet or less

There’s value in deconstruction.

Especially in the aftermath of what rubble Los Angeles may think it’s still under, and whether it falls under the recovery benefits defined by a National emergency.

We’re in a state of grace at the moment, right? Able to look at history and wonder: What if?

What happened last October blew in to Southern California was an act of the Baseball Gods, a force of nature with crazed momentum, leveling the Dodgers’ scheme of finally winning a World Series after its failed attempts in ’17 and ’18, giving the city its first MLB title (in L.A. at least, not counting the Angels’ 2002 trip) since that 1988 magic.

Yet, if you can appreciate the nature of the game, and unpredictable beauty of it, there are endearing parallels to draw between these fresh-brewed ’19 Nationals and that ’88 Dodgers vintage.

Why revisit any of this? Why not.

There are things to learn, appreciate and reinforce, and for the record, make sure our facts are straight versus what our emotions tend to define. In the compelling way Dougherty does it, there’s added enjoyment to show step by step how the Nationals achieved something that readers can’t help but admire and applaud. Especially since the seven game World Series tour included four wins in Houston. Harrumph.

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D.C.’s run may have looked superhero “improbable” – another word we recall Vin Scully pulling out of the sky 32 years ago, and used correctly in the book’s title. But wasn’t impossible,  considering what was already in place, how the current pieces really did fit, the psychology and balanced thought behind everything, and the methods used to achieve a championship that seemed to be going against the 21st Century grain.

Dougherty, the Nationals’ beat reporters for the Washington Post and a former L.A. Times guy who covered the NHL’s Kings, has all the proper power tools to chip away at how and why it happened, then yank off the white cloth and let us gaze upon what we see now to have a better understanding.

He writes that this was a seven-week project after the last out of the World Series, and it took 35 additional interviews to weave in more context during this short window of interpretation. This isn’t cutting and pasting daily stories together like some scrapbooking project some may take in this to capitalize on a moment. Nor is it done by someone who can’t turn a phrase or define a consequence when it’s needed.

fightsThe organization that had just watched Bryce Harper walk away for more cash elsewhere could have decided its 80-81 season in 2018 was their own undoing, and the 19-31 start after key players went down with injuries in April and May in ’19 was just how things would be.

But they shouldn’t have been written off so easily. In the last decade, the Nats had more victories than all but two teams in baseball (one of them, the Dodges). They had the combination of youth and veterans, two Cy Young-resume pitchers willing to go into Hershiser mode in any situation. They added on another two starters of value, patched together a bullpen. They had a health scare of their manager Dave Martinez to bond them further. Throw in the emergence of “Baby Shark” singing, rose-colored glasses, and finding the team’s director of mental condition create a T-shirt campaign with the slogan “Stay in the Fight” and “162+,” and it’s conceivable that a Dodgers team that kind of coasted to a 106-win season was the 2019 version of the 1988 Oakland Athletics.

These best-of-five NLDS series are far more a crap shoot than a fair way to determine a franchise’s worthiness. (And it’s kind of interesting now how Dave Roberts is advocating for three seven-game series in the playoffs going forward).

With five games, the odds were less stacked against the Nationals (and hark back to how the Dodgers’ 1988 run was just winning the NL West, playing the NL East winner, then going to the World Series for seven more if needed). D.C. had its own version of the Dodgers’ “Stunt Men” to go with unexpected heroics. It took guts and imagination for this team to enter as a wildcard, figure out how to reshuffled the deck every step of the way, and live on an inning-by-inning basis to survive and advance.

An entire read is encouraged. Especially the climatic triumph over the Astros that saw that Nationals win all four games of the World Series played in Houston — Games 1 and 2, then 6 and 7 — against all trash-can odds.

But if you’re waiting for the “Law & Order” episode that explains crimes committed between Oct. 3-9, buzz first through pages 167-205, and have the box scores handy to refresh the data.

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Chapters 14, 15 and 16 describe the ebb and flow of the first four games of the series – the Dodgers’ 6-0 win in Game 1 thanks to some Howie Kendrick errors, a Nats’ 4-2 rebound in Game 2 with Max Scherzer coming out of the pen for a hold inning, the Dodgers’ 10-4 blitz in Game 3 that included the seven-run sixth inning (in Hyun-Jin Ryu’s inexplicable only appearance), and then a brief mention of the Nats’ 6-1 win in Game 4 behind Scherzer’s seven innings as a starter versus Rich Hill’s 2 2/3 innings to begin a contest that gave him the largest inning count than any Dodgers pitcher that day.

You know that L.A. already knew some of these guys when the Dodgers knocked off Washington in five games during the 2016 NLDS. This version had second baseman Brian Dozier, a popular player dealt to the Dodgers from Minnesota at the July 31, 2018 deadline, but then let go to be a free agent. Kurt Suzuki was the 30-something catcher out of Cal State Fullerton. Stephen Strasburg was the all-everything San Diego native who had epic battles against Clayton Kershaw over the years.

Then there was Kendrick.

Chapter 17 sets up the backstory on his career – the first nine seasons with the Angels (from age 22 to 30, 2006-’14), ending up with the Nats midway through the 2017 season as a veteran presence/position plugger.  It’s a delight to go over this mini-bio of “Sloppy,” which was his childhood nickname, the way Torii Hunter befriended him … even if there’s no mention of the two seasons Kendrick spent with many of these Dodgers (’15 and ’16) and provided the same sort of veteran leadership and flexibility. There was a sidestep to Philadelphia before the Nats got him and then quickly decided he’d no longer be an outfield option when he ruptured his right Achilles tendon and missed most of the 2018 season.

Not to spoil (again) how 2019 NLDS Game 5 ends up – it’s Kendrick’s grand-slam in the top of the 10th at Dodger Stadium off Joe Kelly, two innings after Clayton Kershaw gave up back-to-back homers to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto to erase a 3-1 lead.

But read how Dougherty describes it:

== Page 200: “How (Kendrick) got there on October 9, to the batters’ box with a chance to win it, would sit with two cities forever. For Washington, there would be Rendon’s swing, and Soto’s swing, and the Kendrick’s swing that changed everything. And Los Angeles would have to live under a pile of Dave Roberts’s mistakes.”

== Page 203: “Kelly, still in (the game in the 10th inning) beyond far bounds of logic and reason, was visited by pitching coach Rick Honeycutt before the at bat. If the advice was to attack Kendrick inside, it wasn’t particularly good … Kendrick used (the second pitch that ran in on him) to make Washington baseball history. … This was redemption. This was getting over the hump. This was a goddamn exorcism on a baseball field.”

== The chapter ends: “The (Nats) team buses rumbled down California Route 110, cutting through a breezy night, until parking at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena. They refilled in the morning after a short night’s sleep, with the Nationals now heading to St. Louis to face the Cardinals. Those rides are usually quiet, especially when players are nursing hangovers. But now there was no interest in that. A forty-minute trip was filled with off-key singing  of the same song. They had Randy Newman’s ‘I Love L.A.’ on repeat.”

How it goes in the scorebook

Like these Nats, this book did kind of blindside us. We resisted an interpretation of what wasn’t the “L.A. version” of how things happened, or what could be left out of the interview process.

Yet it clearly explains a chapter of baseball history, if not overlapping with more Dodger history, as told by someone there with access to collecting material maybe not examined before.

D.C. needs some positive energy right now. This is still it. Even if their top third baseman has relocated in Anaheim (remember, the Dodgers are “too Hollywood”) and a whole new chapter (perhaps) happens in 2020. This feels like how the L.A. Kings won its first Stanley Cup in 2012 and then got extra time to enjoy it because of the NHL’s 2012-13 lockout and knocked out half the next season.

There should be a good amount of buzz about this book, which gets its name from a quote by Strasburg to Doughtery as the Nats advanced to the World Series: “You have a great year, and you can run into a buzz saw. Maybe this year we’re the buzz saw.”

doughertyThe first MLB title in D.C. in 95 years gets a professional treatment from someone who has the words, phrases and first-hand experience to elicit this kind of book – a first in his writing career. A talented writer like Dougherty — really, he’s just 25? — has pulled it off for a quick turnaround in a publishing world that often sacrifices quality for speed. We get both here. Whether or not Dodgers fans would rather have this history rewritten somehow.

More reviews of the book

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