PHOENIX — Their weary souls covered in the pained sweat that comes from digging through the deepest of expectations, the Dodgers celebrated the triumphant climax of their regular-season journey Thursday with a most perfect splash.
The boys took a bath.
Shortly after the Dodgers defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks, 7-6, to clinch the National League West championship, about half of the team jogged out of its Chase Field dugout, across an empty right-field expanse, and headed toward the right-center field wall.
BOX SCORE: Dodgers 7, Arizona 6
This was not going to be a victory lap. This was going to be a victory swim. The players were running to Chase Field's signature pool.
Led by Adrian Gonzalez, a group of guys in baseball pants, championship T-shirts and goggles sprinted to the outfield fence, climbed over it, and went flying into the small pool that has become a quirky yet beloved symbol of the Diamondbacks franchise.
Nick Punto did a cannonball. Yasiel Puig did a swan dive. Clayton Kershaw led the whooping and splashing. Hyun-Jin Ryu also went for a dip, but only after his teammates strained to pull the substantial lefty over the fence.
It was the most unusual of clinching celebrations. Yet for the Diamondbacks, it was also one of the most infuriating. Citing security issues, team officials had earlier asked the Dodgers not to return to the field once they entered their clubhouse. Even though the stadium was virtually empty when the Dodgers ran to the pool, the Diamondbacks were furious at what they perceived as the Dodgers' lack of respect for their team, their fans and their building.
"I could call it disrespectful and classless, but they don't have a beautiful pool at their old park and must have really wanted to see what one was like," said Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall, a former Dodgers executive, in an e-mailed statement.
In response, the Dodgers just shrugged. They've been steamrollering critics since fighting their way out of last place in July, they were going to bow to them now?
"That's OK, I'm sorry they feel that way, we didn't mean any disrespect toward them," Kershaw said. "We're just trying to enjoy our good season. For me, if they were celebrating at our home field, they would have the right to do whatever they wanted."
In other words, if the Diamondbacks didn't want the Dodgers celebrating on their field, then they shouldn't have blown a 91/2-game lead in June, and they shouldn't have blown a three-run lead Thursday, and, oh yeah, maybe earlier this season they shouldn't have been throwing at one of their star pitchers.
Having gone from hearse to first, who can blame the Dodgers for wanting to rinse in a little joy? As long as we don't later learn that they had defaced the pool in any way, why not begin their exploration into October with a little Marco Polo? It was a soak of relief for a team that had the richest payroll in baseball history, yet had become baseball's cheapest joke before forging possibly the greatest midseason Dodgers comeback ever.
"You know, you try to hold it together for so long, you go through so much ... and then you just let it all out," said Manager Don Mattingly.
On June 21, they were in last place, with a 30-42 record, trailing the first-place Diamondbacks by those 91/2 games.
On Thursday afternoon, they clinched first place with an 88-65 record, leading the second-place Diamondbacks by 10 1/2 games.
Do the math. The Dodgers have gone 58-23 since being in the dumps, including a 42-8 stretch that ranks as one of baseball's best ever.
Not that there was anybody actually doing the math in their clubhouse late Thursday afternoon, all of them too busy dealing in the physics of shooting champagne across a crowded and joyful room. There have surely been crazier clubhouse celebrations, but few have probably been more heartfelt, as Mattingly fought back tears while his players surrounded each other with chants and dances and dizzying laughter.
At one point, most of the team encircled Puig and Juan Uribe with chants and champagne as the two men sank to the floor. Later, Matt Kemp aimed a prolonged and direct spray at Hanley Ramirez while shouting, "I told you, you are a beast, son!"
Despite losing 10 of their last 14 games, the Dodgers will nonetheless head into the postseason as that beast.
"We have lots of crazy, down times, everybody has been talking a lot of stuff about the Dodgers," said Kenley Jansen. ''But you know, we never quit."
Yes, they are weary and bruised. Their best hitter Ramirez (two homers Thursday) has an aching back, their most exciting player (Puig) has grown slower and more distracted, and who knows which Kemp will show up?
But the Dodgers also have the two things that every champion must possess — pitching and a bench.
Few can match their starting rotation punch of Kershaw and Zack Greinke. Their bullpen not only has young strength at the back in Jansen, but a veteran setup presence in Brian Wilson, and baffling lefties in J.P Howell and Paco Rodriguez. Their bench, meanwhile, will have one outfielder who could be starting for any other team, plus plenty of postseason experience in the likes of Michael Young, Skip Schumaker, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Punto.
Kirk Gibson, Arizona manager and a star on the Dodgers' last World Series championship team in 1988, was one of the last Diamondbacks to leave the dugout Thursday. He watched the Dodgers' celebration with a forlorn stare, almost as if he was reliving his glorious past as the Dodgers try to finally repeat it.
"It's this team's time, and they know it," Wilson said. "As much as people want to talk about the 1988 Dodgers, they are soon going to be hearing about the 2013 Dodgers."