The National League’s top postseason seed is suddenly back in play.
Just don’t expect the Dodgers to start playing any different.
After trailing the Atlanta Braves for the NL’s best record — and top seed in the playoffs — a distant seven games on Sept. 2, the Dodgers have clawed back within striking distance in recent weeks, closing the gap to just 3 ½ games following a stretch of five straight wins before Wednesday night’s loss to the Detroit Tigers.
The race gives the end of the Dodgers’ regular season an intriguing new subplot to follow.
It gives the team a carrot for continued good play during the final two weeks.
What it won’t do, however, is change the club’s approach leading up to the playoffs — with health, workload management and rest still set to take precedence.
“Obviously,” manager Dave Roberts said, “there’s the benefit of, looking way out, having home-field advantage in the [league championship series].”
But, he quickly added, “I’m not going to make decisions on trying to catch the Braves.”
Indeed, when it comes to pursuit of the No. 1 seed, there doesn’t seem to be an abundance of urgency in the Dodgers clubhouse.
When the Braves came to Los Angeles at the start of September — taking three games out of four to seemingly pull away in the race for the NL’s best record — both Roberts and his players minimized the difference between the first and second playoff seeds, which both get byes straight to the division series.
“I think us getting to the postseason healthy, that trumps everything,” Roberts said then.
Echoed third baseman Max Muncy: “I mean, we had [the one-seed] last year, and it obviously didn’t work for us. You still have to play the game, whether you’re the top seed or the last seed in. The only thing that matters is making it and that’s kind of all we’re focused on.”
By Wednesday, little appeared to change.
While several team members said they’d prefer the No. 1 seed, both to cut down on travel in the NLCS and get a potential Game 7 in the series at home, few cited it as an outward priority over the season’s final stretch.
“However it kind of washes out, we’ll prepare that way,” Roberts said. “The end of October is a long ways away. But today is here. So I find it a lot easier just to think about today.”
Before the NLCS, the No. 1 seed could also face a potentially tougher matchup in the NLDS, since MLB doesn’t reseed teams for the second round of the playoffs.
Last year, that meant the top-seeded Dodgers faced the fourth-seeded San Diego Padres in the NLDS, while the second-seeded Braves got the sixth-seeded Philadelphia Phillies.
This year, the second seed could get an NLDS matchup with the Milwaukee Brewers, a club that is loaded on pitching but underwhelming at the plate, leading to only 86 wins in a weak National League Central.
The top seed, meanwhile, might cross paths with the Phillies, who have three fewer wins than Milwaukee but possess far more star power, not to mention the confidence of winning the NL pennant last year.
Does that factor matter at all to Roberts?
“I don’t think so, because I don’t want to play the ‘be careful what you wish for’ game,” Roberts said. “You look at the Phillies, that’s a very talented team. You saw what they did last year. They can pitch, they can put up a lot of runs quickly. You look at the Brewers, they can really pitch. In any series, they’re very dangerous.
“And the other teams that are in the mix, they are there for a reason,” Roberts added. “So again, I think it’s just easier to, once we know the opponent, prepare and try to beat them.”
Instead of over-exerting themselves to track down Atlanta, which has lost five of six to lose ground in the standings, the Dodgers are sticking to their original plan following last weekend’s division clinch.
They are giving starters extra days off between outings — including six days of rest for Clayton Kershaw before his final two regular season appearances.
They are being careful with bullpen usage and rotating regulars out of the lineup more often than usual.
Granted, the team still wants to play well going into October. They’re wary of stumbling into the same post-division-clinch slump that doomed them last year.
But even if the one-seed is within their reach, they aren’t going out of their way to try to grab it. Just because the Braves left the door open, it doesn’t mean the Dodgers are now trying to bust it down.