The Dodgers are going back to the World Series.
Christian Yelich hit a first inning homer to give Milwaukee the lead, but the Dodgers responded with home runs by Cody Bellinger and Yasiel Puig, as they beat the Brewers, 5-1, to win the National League Championship Series four games to three.
Ahead of the winner-take-all Game 7, I wrote that whichever team took a two-to-three run lead would advance to the World Series. As such, when a precious lead is achieved in these do-or-die games, everything else dissolves and as the world appears to steadily slow on its axis, the arduous counting of outs begins.
Saturday morning started with the Dodgers waking up from the nightmares of a Game 7 loss at the hands of the Houston Astros in last year's World Series.
However, the sun would rise, a new day would come, and the opportunity to erase and exorcise some of those demons was at hand.
27 outs left.
After a scoreless first inning from Milwaukee starter Jhoulys Chacin, Yelich put the Brewers in front when he turned on a 98.5MPH fastball from rookie Walker Buehler for a solo shot.
"Yelich clipped me," said Buehler of the homer. "It's a decent pitch. It's hard to hit that ball there. That's why he's a good player."
It was the second home run of the postseason from the presumed NL MVP, and it sent the sellout crowd at Miller Park into a frenzy as Milwaukee was seeking just their second ever World Series appearance, and first since moving to the National League in 1998.
Milwaukee's vaunted bullpen was ready and waiting, so as the Dodgers headed to the plate in the top half of the second inning, they knew they needed to answer the bell and silence the crowd.
24 outs left.
Similar to a WWE wrestling villain, Dodgers' shortstop Manny Machado led off the second inning to a chorus of boos that drowned out any and all thoughts from players, to fans, to writers on deadline in the press box.
Just days earlier, when asked why he didn't run out a groundball to first base in Game 2 of the series, Machado told Fox Sports reporter Ken Rosenthal, "I don't hustle. It's not in my personality. I'm not the type of player that's going to be Johnny Hustle."
Whether or not Machado becomes the second coming of Pete Rose (Charlie Hustle not Johnny), is yet to be seen, but Machado did do his best impression of the Cincinnati Reds legend when he took everyone by surprise by laying down a full count bunt for an infield single.
"We're trying to do anything to win," said Machado between champagne showers in the clubhouse following the win. "He quick-pitched me, so I'm going to drop one down. I know it was a little ballsy, but anything to win."
"Manny Hustle" went from home to first in 3.96 seconds on the bunt single, the fastest he was clocked making that trip all season long.
Not only did Machado wisely play small ball to get something going, but also the move paid dividends when Bellinger followed with a 424-foot home run that put the Dodgers in front, 2-1.
"I was looking for a pitch up, two strikes, just trying to put a good swing on it, and luckily it went out of there," said Bellinger who was named the MVP of the series. "It felt great. I honestly couldn't do it without the guys around me supporting me the whole year it feels pretty special."
Machado believed Bellinger was due, and was ectastic to be on base for the big blast.
"I knew Belly was due. He was due for something. I just needed to get on base for him and pass the baton," he said. "It came out perfect because Belli came up next and hit that big big homer to put us on top."
Bellinger's blast was his first of the playoffs, and fourth of his career after he hit three home runs during his NL Rookie of the Year campaign during the 2017 regular and postseason.
"I know how lucky I am to go back to the World Series two years in a row and how hard it is," said Bellinger. "So to be a part of this team is pretty special. With that said we still have four more to go."
When Walker Buehler headed back to the mound for the bottom of the second inning, he was clinging to a slim one-run lead and needed to continue to throw zeroes in order to help his team reach the World Series.
The stress and pressure alone is enough to turn any other 24-year-old into a deer in headlights, but not Buehler, not this rookie.
Despite entering the game with a record of 0-1 and a 6.75 ERA in the postseason, Walker Buehler became just the third Dodger rookie to start a winner-take-all game in franchise history, joining Joe Black (Game 7, 1952 World Series vs. Yankees) and Fernando Valenzuela (Game 5, 1981 NLCS vs. Montreal Expos).
After the home run to Yelich, Buehler was unflappable, surrendering just the one run, on six hits with no walks and seven strikeouts in 4 and 2/3 outstanding innings.
"I just tried to be myself and be a little more creative than I had been and it worked out for us," said Buehler of his start. "This one worked out a little better than earlier in the series."
Buehler exited the game with two outs and the tying run on second base in the bottom of the fifth inning. Julio Urias came on in relief to face Yelich who crushed a 94MPH fastball to left field where Chris Taylor (who started the game at second base) made a leaping catch, falling into the warning track to keep the Dodgers in the lead.
"You could feel the tension in the fans. The tying run on second...it was all built up, and it was so loud in the outfield that communicating with Bellinger was difficult," said Taylor of his game-changing grab. "I knew it was in the gap and I was just trying to run hard and get to the spot. I had to change my route and go back towards the fence a little bit. I was just happy I made the play."
So was everyone wearing Dodger blue.
"I think the most important part of the game today was CT's catch in left field," said Bellinger. "That definitely changed the whole game for us."
"That Taylor catch was unbelievable," added Buehler. "I don't know many people who can play shortstop to start the season, second base to start the game, and then go to the outfield and make that catch."
12 outs left. Remember to breathe.
As the Dodgers batted in the top of the sixth inning, with the world's best reliever in Josh Hader now out of the game, each pitch seemed to take an eternity. Each runner on base, either a dire threat, or the hope of a city stuck in a 30-year title drought.
Yasiel Puig stepped to the plate, with the knowledge and understanding of all this. Since joining the Dodgers in 2013, he's appeared in more postseason games than any other player in franchise history with 53. He knows how badly the City of Angels wants a championship; he too yearns to host the Commissioner's Trophy himself.
Puig himself proclaimed the Dodgers would win the World Series last season. He did it again after they won their sixth consecutive NL West Division at the end of September. Accurately predicting the Dodgers would dispatch of the Atlanta Braves in the Division Series and eliminate the Milwaukee Brewers in the Leage Championship Series before advancing to the World Series and celebrating in the streets of Los Angeles in November.
So with the weight of that prediction firmly on his strong shoulders, Puig stepped to the plate to stare down Brewers' reliever Jeremy Jeffress, the same pitcher who surrendered the game-winning home run to Justin Turner in Game 2.
Puig swung out of his shoes on a 95MPH fastball to start the at-bat, looked at another for a ball, and then crushed an 83MPH curveball for a line-drive, three-run homer that put the Dodgers ahead 5-1.
"I never expected that ball to be a home run," admitted Puig after the game. "I was so excited because there was two people on base. Thank God that ball kept going and it was a home run."
It was easily the biggest home run in Puig's six-year career, and it sent the crowd from a rabid Miller Park mob, into a silent study hall, and put the Dodgers on the precipice of their 11th World Series appearance in franchise history.
Nine, eight, seven… each out felt like a life-or-death proposition. Each reliever out of the Dodgers bullpen that recorded an out felt the collective exhale of Dodger fans across the globe, and the progressive groans of the Brewers fans in the building.
"We had a hard time getting anything going today, more than one runner on a base in an inning, just couldn't get it going," said Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell. "We weren't able to put together rallies, multiple hits, and get things going. And credit to them for how they pitched tonight."
The team that scored first in the series lost five of the seven games. The team that hit a leadoff home run in the final two games went on to lose the game. Baseball is random, that much we know, and whatever we thought we knew was turned on its head over the span of seven games.
Six, five, four…Kenley Jansen, an All-Star closer that had his season in doubt after an irregular heartbeat sent him to a Denver hospital in early August, mowed down Milwaukee hitters like he was a machine.
"Before the game, Doc had a conversation with me, and told me they might go the same route as they did in 2016 [NLDS Game 5] against Washington [Nationals]," said Jansen. "It doesn't matter if I'm closing or not, just put me in the game when you need me. He brought me in in the seventh, and I got my job done. We just had to play all 27 outs."
Three outs left.
The constant reminder of the mantra, "all hands on deck," was apparent throughout the game as the tantalizing possibility that the Dodgers three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw would ride out of the bullpen on his white horse and send the Dodgers back to the World Series as he did in Game of the NLCS in Chicago last year.
Possibility became a reality when the 2014 MVP ran out of the bullpen to take the mound in the bottom of the ninth with the World Series on the line.
"I look around and I see Kershaw is out there and Kenley, I don't think I've ever had a better feeling," said reliever Ryan Madson who pitched one and two-thirds of scoreless relief. "When you see Clayton Kershaw in the bullpen with 100 pitches under his belt, and ready to go in to the game, I don't think there's a better feeling.
Kershaw started the bottom of the ninth with 44,907 in attendance waiting and praying on bated breath. He faced second baseman Travis Shaw to start things off. Shaw grounded out to second base.
Two outs left.
Next up was Venezuelan powerhouse, Jesus Aguilar, who the night prior had three hits, two doubles and three RBI in Milwaukee's Game 6 win. Kershaw struck him out on six pitches.
One out left.
Fate inevitably has a way of placing the exact people it wants in the moments that hold the most magnitude.
So with the Dodgers so close to advancing to the pinnacle series of their sport, it was fitting that someone who once went to the World Series and lost, only to go back and win it the next year, would face the man on the mound hoping to do the exact same thing that the player he was now facing had done.
Former Royals third baseman, and 2015 World Series Champion, Mike Moustakas, stepped into the box. He had singled against Kershaw in Game 1 of the series, but was 0-for-3 against him in Game 5. Kershaw dispatched of him on six pitches as well.
"I appreciate these moments," said Kershaw after he was mobbed by his teammates on the mound. "It's pretty fun. You might never get to do it again. It's hard to take something like this for granted."
In victory, the Dodgers became the first team since the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals to win a Game 7 of the LCS on the road, and won their 23rd NL pennant, tied with the Giants for the most in NL history.
"I can't say enough about our players, our coaches, the front office and most importantly the fans," said Dodgers' manager Dave Roberts. "They supported us through thick and thin and we fed off their support."
The Dodgers were once ten games below .500 on May 16, and last place in the West division, facing the looming possibility that they might not make the postseason, let alone return to the World Series.
Thankfully, the hangover cleared, and the Dodgers returned to their dominant self, finishing 30 games above .500 from that point on, finishing with 92 wins and their sixth consecutive division title.
"This is an unbelievable feeling to be standing here right now," said Justin Turner, whose return to the lineup from a broken wrist suffered in spring training helped complete the turnaround. "At one point 10 games under .500, at one point in third place in the division in September. We've played with our backs against the wall all season, here we were again tonight, Game 7, backs against the wall again and we found a way to get it done."
The role of underdog is unfamiliar for the Boys in Blue, they have always been the Goliath in the proverbial matchup with David. Nonetheless, when they face the Boston Red Sox (108 wins), and the best team in baseball all year long, they will be a substantial longshot.
"It's an amazing team. The best team in the AL and the best team in baseball with 108 wins," said Puig of the Red Sox. "But now they're going to face us, and the best team is going to win. I've never played in Boston before, it's going to be cold."
It was 102 years ago the last time the Dodgers and Red Sox met in the World Series when Boston defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers behind a 14-inning outing by pitcher Babe Ruth in 1916.
"I'm looking forward to going back to Fenway," said Roberts who like Red Sox manager Alex Cora has won both jerseys. "Obviously for me personally I have a lot of fond memories of the Red Sox and Fenway Park. To be wearing another uniform going in there playing for a World Series Championship is going to be special for me. It's great for baseball. Two storied franchises going head-to-head. It's going to be a great series."
The last time Los Angeles won the World Series was in 1988, where ironically, they were the dark horse against the 104-win Oakland Athletics, who had the bash brothers, the best starting rotation, and the best closer in the game.
So maybe it's not a coincidence that on this date, October 20th, 30 years ago, today, the Dodgers defeated the A's, 5-2, to win the 1988 World Series, the last championship they won.
Here's hoping history repeats itself.
The World Series begins at Fenway Park in Boston on Tuesday night 5:09PM PT.
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