SPORTS DIGEST: 2023: a year with no championships for L.A. teams

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Many Los Angeles sports teams entered 2023 with hopes for championships. Alas, no local teams grabbed the brass ring.

Still it was an eventful if unfruitful year for L.A.’s teams.

The Los Angeles Football Club played for its second straight Major League Soccer championship but fell to Columbus 2-1 in the title game Dec. 9. 

A team-by-team look at 2023 starts with the Dodgers, not only because they had the best record of any local team and made a second straight pratfall in the playoffs, but they closed the year strong with two major free agent signings and a big trade that should set up their pitching rotation for the next five years at least.

The Dodgers won the National League West for the 10th time in 11 seasons in 2023, winning 100 or more games for the fifth time in seven years. But, like the year before, they were eliminated in the National League Division Series, this time by the Arizona Diamondbacks, who went on to lose in the World Series to the Texas Rangers.

The downfall in 2023 could be traced to the starting pitching rotation, which ended the season in tatters. The first five starters to take the mound for the Dodgers in 2023 were Clayton Kershaw, off-season free agent signee Noah Syndergard, Julio Urias, rookie Michael Grove and Dustin May.

Grove was the only one of those five still on the active roster when the season ended in October. Kershaw missed most of the last two months of the season with a shoulder injury, Syndergard went 1-4 with a 7.16 earned run average and was traded in July, Urias was placed on administrative leave by the team after a second domestic violence incident and May was lost to elbow surgery after nine starts.

Offensively, the Dodgers were great. Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman finished second and third in National League Most Valuable Player voting. Betts hit .307 on the season with 39 home runs and 107 runs batted in. Freeman hit .331 with 29 homers and 102 RBI.

The Dodgers also got productive seasons from third baseman Max Muncy (36 homers, 105 RBI), designated hitter J.D. Martinez (33 homers, 103 RBI) and rookie center fielder James Outman (23 homers, 70 RBI).

They were second in the National League in runs scored and home runs and third in batting average.

The bullpen, after a rough start, pitched well most of the season, particularly new closer Evan Phillips (24 saves, 2.05 earned run average) and Brusdar Graterol (7 saves, 1.20 ERA).

The Dodgers also introduced some promising newcomers to the pitching staff in Bobby Miller, Emmet Sheehan and Ryan Pepiot, although Pepiot has since been traded.

Pepiot went to Tampa Bay in a deal for Tyler Glasnow, who was then signed to a five-year contract extension for $136 million. Glasnow went 10-7 with Tampa Bay last season.

His acquisition, though, ranks third on the Dodgers list of off-season moves behind the signings of Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Tamamato.

Ohtani signed the biggest sports contract ever, 10 years for $700 million. Yamamoto signed a 12-year deal for $325 million.

In a matter of two weeks the Dodgers committed $1.161 billion to three pitchers. If that doesn’t fix their pitching problems, nothing will.

Losing in the divisional round of the playoffs for the second season in a row wasn’t the biggest pratfall by a local team this season. That had to go to the USC football team, which entered 2023 as an alleged contender for the national championship and ended the year playing Louisville in the Holiday Bowl.

The Trojans went 7-5 thanks to a dreadful defense that gave up 34 or more points in each of its final eight games. 

Returning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams couldn’t overcome that kind of defense. He threw for 3,633 yards and 30 touchdowns with only five interceptions, but the Trojans lost five of their last six games after starting the season 6-0 and being ranked as high as fourth in the nation at one time.

Head coach Lincoln Riley fired defensive coordinator Alex Grinch with two games left in the season and promised to find better defensive players in the transfer portal, but he lost most of the goodwill he developed with his 11-3 record in 2022.

And next year he will be without Williams, who figures to be a high draft pick in the NFL come April.

UCLA had a better football season than their crosstown rivals. The Bruins finished with an 8-5 record after beating Boise State 35-22 in the L.A. Bowl Dec. 16 at SoFi Stadium. 

Coach Chip Kelly used three different starting quarterbacks during the season. Heralded freshman Dante Moore had problems with interceptions and was benched at the end of the season. He quickly entered the transfer portal once the season concluded.

Ethan Garbers quarterbacked the Bruins to their bowl game victory and will probably start spring practice as the Bruins number one quarterback. 

It was the third year in a row Kelly and the Bruins won at least eight games and a year in which the Bruins beat USC is always a good season.  

Another team that failed to live up to expectations was the Los Angeles Chargers. A wild card team in the AFC last season, the Chargers were expected to contend for the AFC Western Division title this season.

With two games remaining on the schedule, they are 5-10 and head coach Brandon Staley and general manager Tom Telesco were fired after the Chargers were blown out by the Las Vegas Raiders 63-21 Dec. 14 on the Thursday night game of the week.

The Chargers signed young quarterback Justin Herbert to a massive contract prior to the season, but didn’t do enough to protect their young quarterback. He suffered a broken finger on his non-throwing hand Oct. 1 and then broke a finger on his throwing hand Dec. 10 against the Broncos and was lost for the season.

Herbert lost his second best target, Mike Williams, to injury earlier in the season and running back Austin Ekeler has had a subpar season after failing to get a new contract in the offseason.

The Chargers will enter the offseason searching for new leadership at the top. Fans are hopeful the Chargers will be able to lure Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, but I doubt the Spanos family will come up with enough money to bring Harbaugh out west again.

While the Chargers took a nose dive in 2023, the Rams surprisingly bounced back from their nose dive in 2022. Most NFL prognosticators figured the Rams would be closer to the number one draft pick than the playoffs this season, but with two games left to play the Rams find themselves at 8-7 and in charge of their own playoff destiny.

Win the final two games against the New York Giants — no problem — and the San Francisco 49ers — a major problem — and the Rams are in. Actually, the Rams could clinch a berth this weekend with a win over the Giants a loss by the Seattle Seahawks and a tie between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers. 

The Rams, who had massive salary cap issues after their Super Bowl win in February 2022, have rebounded with key performances by second-year running back Kyren Williams and rookie wide receiver Puka Nacua and a young, aggressive defense that has gotten better as the season has progressed.

In basketball, the Lakers and Clippers are still sorting out who they are in 2023. 

The Lakers were filled with optimism after winning the NBA’s first-ever in-season tournament earlier this month with a 123-109 win over the Indiana Pacers. But since then the Lakers are 2-6 and talking about shaking up the roster again comes Jan. 15 when off-season free agent signings can be moved.

Head coach Darvin Ham has had to deal with injuries that have sidelined key components of the rotation at one time or another and guard Gabe Vincent, a major off-season acquisition underwent knee surgery this past week that will sideline him until after the all-star break.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis have been outstanding most of the time and Austin Reaves has shined in his role as sixth man. But the Lakers have not gotten any consistency from D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, Taurean Prince or Christian Wood — players who were being counted on to help the Lakers get back to the conference finals this season. 

Right now, it doesn’t look like that will happen this season. Look for Russell to be moved as soon as possible by the Lakers after the first of the year.

The Clippers, on the other hand, are playing their best ball of the season, winning 10 of their last 12 games to move into fourth place in the NBA Western Conference standings. 

The Clippers turned it around when coach Tyronn Lue realized James Harden and Russell Westbrook did not mesh well in the starting lineup. Westbrook is now providing lots of energy off the bench and Harden is running the offense.

Center Ivica Zubac and Harden run the pick-and-roll particularly well and that is freeing up Paul George and Kawhi Leonard for better shots. If the Clippers can stay healthy, they can make things happen this season.

In soccer, as mentioned earlier, LAFC advanced to the MLS championship game again this year. After winning the 2022 title, the team fell to Columbus 2-1 in this year’s title game. 

LAFC was 14-10-10 this season, finishing third in the MLS Western Conference. 

The Galaxy had another dreadful season, finishing next to last in the MLS Western Conference with only eight wins in 34 games. Since winning the MLS championship in 2014 for the third time in four years, the Galaxy has missed the playoffs entirely in five if the last nine seasons and have become the second best team in their home city after being one of the elite teams in the league for most of their existence.