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Managing expectations: Dave Roberts keeps the Dodgers’ machine humming along

There’s an oddity about sports that will never change.

Once a team becomes good, like really good, it’s expected to win all the time.

And when it doesn’t win, when players experience slumps and injuries, it’s viewed as a colossal disappointment. Fire the manager. Trade the players.

It’s baseball, though. The regular season runs from late March to early October, a 162-game marathon. What’s happening in May or June doesn’t guarantee the outcome in September.

Case in point: The Los Angeles Dodgers and their wildly successful manager, Dave Roberts.

From June 18 to June 28, the mighty Dodgers were in third place in the National League West, prompting speculation that maybe this is the year the franchise’s streak of 10 straight playoff appearances is halted.

Since then, the Dodgers have gone 11-4 and have moved back into first. There was no panic, no major concern within that clubhouse or front office.

“I don’t think we get too far down and, conversely, I don’t think we get too high when we are playing well,” said Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior. “We understand there’s a long road and it’s a long journey.”

That mentality starts with the 51-year-old Roberts, a force of unbounding positivity who has led the Dodgers to the playoffs in each of his first seven seasons with the club, including capturing the 2020 World Series championship and National League pennants in 2017 and 2018.

“He’s able to maintain that even level of energy and excitement, and he brings it every single day. And that’s hard to do,” Prior said about Roberts. “Whether you’re coaching or playing, it’s really hard to bring it every single day, and I think that’s what allows us, behind him, to help support what our guys want to do. Because ultimately, that’s our job. To go out and help support these guys play the best they can.”

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No doubt Roberts has had an abundantly talented club since he took over from Don Mattingly before the 2016 season. The Dodgers spend money, they produce quality prospects from within and they’re in a division that seemingly always has a rebuilding club or two.

Regardless, Roberts’ managerial record of 708-420 – including one loss in his lone game managing the San Diego Padres in 2015 — is stunning. His .628 winning percentage is fifth all-time and is first among all managers with at least 600 career wins. Roberts’ 45 postseason victories are fifth all-time behind Hall-of-Famers Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox and defending World Champion Dusty Baker.

That’s one impressive group. And each of those guys managed at least 25 seasons in the big leagues; Roberts is in his eighth full season.

This one, frankly, could be Roberts’ most difficult challenge. Injuries have changed the complexion of the club, especially the rotation. Clayton Kershaw and Noah Syndergaard are currently on the 15-day IL. Dustin May and Walker Buehler are on the 60-day IL. So is Gavin Lux, who was supposed to be the club’s everyday shortstop with Trea Turner leaving in the offseason via free agency.

According to Spotrac.com, the Dodgers have an injured list worth $65 million, which is roughly the same as the Baltimore Orioles’ total payroll and more than that of the Oakland Athletics.

Injuries have opened the door for a bit of a youth movement.

Nine Dodgers pitchers have made at least three starts this season, including three who have made their MLB debuts this year.

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Yes, the Dodgers still have Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Will Smith, J.D. Martinez and Julio Urias. So, no one is shedding tears for Roberts and his crew. The Dodgers total payroll is approximately $228 million, the fifth largest in baseball.

Of that group of five, however, only the Dodgers would make the playoffs if the season ended today.

“Being in first place right now, it doesn’t just happen,” Roberts said. “And we’ve got a good group of guys.”

A group of stars mixed with youngsters to produce what has been a rather unique Dodgers’ season so far.

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“I think it’s been my most fun. And I think it’s been my most challenging. Obviously, the IL, the injuries and also the backfilling of young players that we’re getting in big, significant roles: Starting pitching middle of the diamond,” Roberts said. “To kind of manage those guys, their psyche, their playing time, and the confidence part of it, while kind of melding the veteran players that are new to this club and guys that have been here. So, it’s been very rewarding.”

From afar, it just seems like the same old Dodgers machine rolling along. But from inside the clubhouse, it’s a group that believes in itself, no matter who is on the shelf.

And there’s no question who sets the tone: Roberts, who quietly is building one of the best managerial resumes in the history of the game.

“The expectation here, every single year, is to win ballgames and win championships. I think when you set that standard, you have to live up to it, you have to work to live up to it,” said Dodgers reliever Evan Phillips. “We’re not satisfied with any kind of, I don’t want to say failure, but if there is an opportunity to do more, we expect it. And I think (Roberts) is the perfect guy to be put into that position for this franchise.”

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