| USA TODAY
Dodgers advance to the World Series for third time in four years
SportsPulse: The Dodgers are headed back to the World Series for the third time in four years. Bob Nightengale explains why this may finally be the team that reaches the mountain top.
ARLINGTON, Texas – For six consecutive years now, the Los Angeles Dodgers have stared into baseball’s abyss, the winner-take-all playoff game, a contest that brought them heroes and heartbreak in almost equal measure, but never ended with the club recording the final out of the season, inciting a merry dogpile.
Sunday night, on a balmy and wind-swept evening at Globe Life Field, the Dodgers confronted so many of their past demons in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, and above all an Atlanta Braves team that pushed them to the brink of elimination by winning three of the first four games.
Yet this is widely regarded as the greatest of the Dodgers’ eight consecutive division champions, buttressed by the acquisition of Mookie Betts, galvanized by an infusion of young pitching, but always wondering if something was missing from the franchise still searching for its first World Series title since 1988.
DODGERS WIN NLCS: Corey Seager named MVP
WORLD SERIES: Rays fight off Astros comeback to reach Fall Classic
Well, in a taut and wildly entertaining Game 7, the Dodgers showed a fortitude they either developed or perhaps always possessed, only to get swallowed in October’s whims. They erased a pair of Braves leads and bedeviled them again with two-out magic, ultimately prevailing on Cody Bellinger’s seventh-inning home run to give them a 4-3 victory and their third NL pennant in four seasons.
They will advance to play the upstart Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series, Game 1 Tuesday night back here at this socially-distanced, pandemic-improvised neutral site.
The Dodgers remain in the playoff bubble because good things happened to a great team in a decisive game. That hasn’t always been the case as, entering Game 7, they’d lost three of five elimination games dating to 2015.
“It’s just the mentality we have: Show up that day, win that day,” said NLCS MVP Corey Seager, a rookie in 2015 who in this series slugged five home runs and drove in 11 runs, both NLCS records. “This team does a very good job being in the moment. You gotta stay in that moment, be in the moment and let the chips fall where they may.
“Right now, they’re falling our way.”
It was heroes old and new who made it happen.
Start with Bellinger, the 2019 NL MVP whose playoff woes have dogged him since his record-breaking 2017 rookie season. He was just 4-for-22 in this NLCS when he stepped to the plate against Braves reliever Chris Martin, the score tied and two out in the seventh. Bellinger battled through seven pitches of the at-bat, before finally slamming the eighth into the seats in right field, pausing by his dugout to exhort his Series-bound teammates.
Continue with Betts, acquired from the Boston Red Sox for pennies on the dollar and granted a $365 million contract. For the third consecutive game, Betts made a stunning defensive play in right field, this time robbing Freddie Freeman of a fifth-inning homer that would have pushed the Braves’ lead to 4-3.
And let’s not forget the others who date back to the first of these do-or-die games, the fifth game of the 2015 NLDS, who could have been playing their last games as a Dodger. Kiké Hernandez, inserted as a pinch hitter, led off the sixth with a game-tying home run off Braves reliever A.J. Minter, like Bellinger battling back and winning an eight-pitch battle.
His old infield running mate, Justin Turner, kick-started perhaps the biggest game-turning play, the Braves with two runners in scoring position and already leading 3-2 when Nick Markakis hit a grounder to third.
Turner fielded it and with impeccable timing threw home to get Dansby Swanson in a rundown. This stroke of good fortune eventually resulted in a 5-2-5-6 double play.
And of course, manager Dave Roberts, panned for so many October misfires with his pitching moves. On this night, he masterfully guided five pitchers through the daunting Braves lineup, finished by Julio Urías, who held down the Braves with three perfect innings of relief.
The Braves? They are young and wildly talented and will be back. They just ran into a Dodgers team that crawled out of a 3-1 hole to retain the chance to prove they are, in fact, a notch better than their predecessors who came up short.
Some things aren’t different: Dodger success is predicated on pitching, power and patience, and their holy trinity merged on this evening. Hernandez’s tying home run and Bellinger’s go-ahead shot gave the Dodgers 16 home runs, tying the 2008 Rays for an LCS record.
The pitching? That was a little sketchier. Roberts hoped to protect ostensible Game 7 starter Tony Gonsolin by having fellow rookie Dustin May “open” the game, but the strategy backfired when both men gave up runs in the first and second.
It seemed all the more dubious when Blake Treinen inherited Gonsolin’s mess, as he was pitching for the third day in a row and covered two innings a day before.
But Treinen induced the most important ground ball of the night, off Markakis’ bat, that kick-started the wild Braves misadventure on the bases. Treinen gutted through two more innings and after rookie Brusdar Graterol pitched a scoreless sixth, it was Urias time.
Spoon-fed innings and responsibility since he debuted as a 19-year-old in 2016, Urias has been perhaps their most important pitcher this postseason. He pitched five innings of one-run ball to key the Game 3 win and on this night, was both the winner and the closer.
“Julio is very talented, he’s very smart, he’s very tough,” says Roberts. “We’ve handled him with kid gloves over the years, put him in roles he may not have wanted and he expressed that, and we understand.
“It was his moment. I trust him, he was throwing the baseball well and I wanted him to finish that game.”
Urias’ biggest out was retiring the dangerous Ozzie Albies to lead off the ninth. One out later, Riley skied a ball to center and Bellinger, appropriately, camped under it, setting off an exuberant celebration, kids running the bases and grown men crying.
Now, to see if they can gin up one more just like it.
“It took the first guy on the roster to the 28th guy on the roster,” says Hernandez, who had a three-homer game in the Dodgers’ Game 5 clincher at Chicago in the 2017 NLCS. “The job’s not done. The goal wasn’t to get to the World Series, it was to win the World Series. We’re gonna have fun tonight. We’re going to enjoy what we accomplished.
“At the same time, the job’s not done.”