By Don Wanlass
Last year was easy for the Dodgers. In a 60-game season shortened by the coronavirus, the Dodgers got off to a fast start and coasted into the postseason.
The Braves had them on the ropes in the National League Championship series, but the Dodgers recovered and — assisted by a managerial blunder in the Tampa dugout — came back to win game six of the World Series, which gave them their first World Series championship since 1988.
This year hasn’t been so easy. After a 13-2 start, the Dodgers fell into a slump, going 5-15 in their next 20 games and falling behind first the San Diego Padres and later the San Francisco Giants.
The Dodgers have been hit hard by injuries throughout the year. Centerfield Cody Bellinger and shortstop Corey Seager — two key performers offensively and defensively — both missed more than two months of the season.
The starting pitching rotation — seven arms deep at the end of spring training — was hurt by a season-ending injury to Dustin May and off-the-field activities that have sidelined key free agent signee Trevor Bauer since late June, and ither injury woes to Clayton Kershaw and Tony Gonsolin.
Now it’s September and the Dodgers are playing the most important three-game series of the year against the San Francisco Giants.
The Giants are in their first noticeable slump of the year, losing four of the last fives games, allowing the Dodgers to creep within a half-game of the lead in the National League Western Division. The Dodgers would be in first place if they had not dropped two games at home last weekend against the Colorado Rockies, but that doesn’t matter.
The Dodgers could be going into this crucial series with the Giants with their three top starters lined up to pitch, but the Dodgers chose to use a third straight bullpen-by-committee game Aug. 29 instead of using Julio Urias on his usual four days of rest.
That means David Price will probably Sept. 3, followed by Urias Sept. 4 and Walker Buehler Sept. 5. Max Scherzer, the guy the Dodgers traded for in late July to bolster the starting rotation and pitch in big games, faced the Colorado Rockies Sept. 1 and will face the St. Louis Cardinals Sept. 6.
Urias and Buehler have been spectacular this year, but I would have felt more better knowing the Giants had to get past Urias, Buehler and Scherzer rather than Price, Urias and Buehler.
The Giants are having their own issues right now. Former Dodger Alex Wood will miss the series due to COVID-19 protocols and Johnny Cueto also might have to miss a start because of the virus. That would help the Dodgers, who are still favored by most prognosticators to get back to the World Series this year.
It will be an easier road if they finish at the top of the division instead of second place, which would put them in the wild card game.
Not only would a wild-card game mess up the Dodgers pitching rotation for the first round of the playoffs, anything can happen in the win-or-go-home wild card format.
The Dodgers have a slightly easier schedule than the Giants do the rest of the way, and better overall roster. But the Giants have played well all season and sre showing no signs of giving in to the Dodgers.
It should be a great September pennant race.
BRUINS SHINE: UCLA did something Aug. 28 they haven’t done in a while: defeat a non-conference opponent.
The Bruins defeated an overmatched University of Hawaii team, 44-10. That would have been something to celebrate, except the Bruins’ veteran quarterback, Dorian Thompson-Robinson didn’t look very good in the process, particularly in the first half.
DTR, now in his fourth year at the helm of the Bruins offense, completed only 4 of 12 passes in the first half and looked awful at times.
It didn’t matter because the Bruins running game, with transfers Zach Charbonnet and Brittan Brown found gaping holes to run through in the Hawaii line.
Charbonnet, who grew up in Southern California but chose to spend his first two years in college at Michigan, carried the ball only six times for 106 yards and three touchdowns. His scores came on runs of 21, 47 and 21 yards.
Brown added 78 yards in 13 carries and scored once.
It took the pressure off Robinson-Thompson who had a better second half before being replaced by Ethan Garbers late in the third quarter.
The only downer for the Bruins was the paid attendance, which was 32,982. The Rose Bowl looked more empty than that on television.
The attendance should be higher this week with LSU coming to the town and the game in the late afternoon instead of at 12:30 p.m. Heck, LSU may bring 30,000 fans themselves.
The Bruins also will have a better idea of where they stand after playing the Tigers, still coached by former USC coach Ed Orgeron.
UCLA is only a three-point underdog, which seems like a good bet for LSU fans. Of course, the Bruins have the advantage of playing a game already. The game will be on Fox starting at 5:30 p.m.
TROJANS OPENER: USC kicks off its season Sept. 4 against San Jose State at the Coliseum with kickoff scheduled at 2 p.m. on the Pac 12 Network, if you can find it.
San Jose State had a great season last year, going 7-1, winning the Mountain West Conference title and losing only to Ball State in the Arizona Bowl.
If the Trojans find a way to lose this game, head coach Clay Helton might not get out of the Coliseum alive.
That being said, the Trojans shouldn’t have to worry.
Quarterback Kedon Slovis is in his third year as a starter and he has a solid corps of receivers, a new running back in Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram, and an offensive line that has a year’s more experience than it did last year, when Slovis was sacked 15 times.
Four starters return from that line and how they perform will be a key factor in how well the Trojans play.
On defense, the Trojans should have a good pass rush led by outside linebacker Drake Jackson and freshman defensive end Korey Foreman, who is already turning heads.
The Trojans lost some key defensive players to graduation, but they have a deep secondary and should be better defensively after having a year with defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s system under their belt.
The Trojans need to win the Pac 12 Southern Division to keep the heat off head coach Clay Helton. Winning the conference title itself, would make for a great season.
Sports Illustrated has the Trojans ranked ninth in their preseason forecast. Diehard Trojans fans’ expectations are higher than that. But then, they always are.