LOS ANGELES -- When the Dodgers were nine games back on May 1, and again later that month when they fell 10 games below .500, manager Dave Roberts insisted they would win a sixth consecutive National League West title. It took 163 games and Walker Buehler, but Roberts nailed it.
With two-run homers from Cody Bellinger and Player Page for Max Muncy powering the offense, Buehler fired 6 2/3 one-hit innings, the first 5 1/3 without allowing a hit, while also singling home his first career run in Monday's 5-2 clincher over the Rockies at Dodger Stadium.
"What I see now is the same as I saw back then," Roberts said, clutching tightly a bottle of champagne. "With all the adversity we put ourselves in, we knew we could overcome. I never wavered from believing that and they never wavered either. It's a long season. That's why you play 163."
As a result, the Dodgers will host the Atlanta Braves in the NL Division Series beginning Thursday, while the Rockies must play the Cubs in Chicago on Tuesday in the NL Wild Card Game. The Rockies still have never won a division title in franchise history.
"[The tough times] will make us a lot better for it," Justin Turner said. "We weren't given anything. We had to go out there and play and earn it all. We hit a few rough patches but we bounced right back and did what we had to do to win another title."
Still, nobody wanted any part of that Wild Card Game nonsense, so they turned to a 24-year-old with eight Major League wins who is doing things the Dodgers haven't seen since Clayton Kershaw emerged into one of the game's greats. Buehler opened the season in the Minor Leagues, but he's finishing the season on the prime-time postseason stage.
"His arc of development is very steep and trends vertical at a rapid pace," said Roberts. "We knew the moment wasn't going to be too big for him. He was ready and he responded."
Buehler (8-5) struck out three, losing the no-hitter on Charlie Blackmon's clean one-out single in the sixth inning. Buehler also walked three and hit a batter, stranding runners in scoring position in the third and sixth innings. "I was shaking all first inning," said Buehler. "I got lucky. They hit it where our guys were."
At the plate, Buehler walked in his first at-bat, and his single cashed in a two-out ground-rule double by Enrique Hernandez in the sixth inning.
Buehler likes to be compared to Justin Verlander. His slight build draws comparisons to Timothy Lincecum. But pitching coach Rick Honeycutt can't help but see a right-handed Kershaw as he's watched Buehler develop a slider, as Kershaw did, to give opposing hitters a pitch with significant speed differential from an electric 99 mph fastball, which even Kershaw never had.
"Early on, they all want to blow everybody away, but with that slider, he's starting to pitch, not just throw," said Honeycutt. "There aren't many you can compare with that ability, but he reminds me of Kersh."
Even a drenched Kershaw was grasping for superlatives as he watched the heir apparent ace.
"It's special to watch him pitch," said Kershaw. "His talent level, some of the best stuff I've ever witnessed. And in a game like this, I don't know a politically correct way to say this, but he's got [a lot of guts]."
By avoiding the Wild Card Game, the Dodgers have their pitching set up for the Braves, with Roberts saying Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu will probably start Games 1 and 2 of the NLDS at home. Buehler, 4-1 in his last 11 starts since July 31, is lined up to start Game 3 in Atlanta on Sunday with an extra day of rest after throwing 93 pitches.
Buehler was replaced after issuing a two-out walk to Carlos Gonzalez in the seventh. Pedro Baez came on and walked Ian Desmond, but pinch-hitter Matthew Holliday popped out. Scott Alexander, Kenta Maeda and Kenley Jansen (who allowed back-to-back homers by Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story leading off the ninth) finished off the clincher.
"If we get to where we want to go, we're going to need Kenley," Roberts said of his inconsistent closer. "My confidence in him hasn't changed."
The Dodgers hosted Monday's game because they won the tiebreaking head-to-head season series with the Rockies, 12-7. That domination continued, even though they were facing German Marquez, NL Pitcher of the Month for September. They went 7-3 against Colorado at home this year.
The Dodgers got to Marquez (14-11) in the fourth inning, extended long enough by crossed-up catcher Tony Wolters' critical passed ball for Bellinger's majestic two-run shot to right field. Bellinger was 1-for-16 against Marquez coming into the at-bat.
In the fifth, Joc Pederson led off with a double and one out later Muncy went opposite field for his team-leading 35th home run on a 99 mph fastball, the fastest pitch hit for a homer by the Dodgers this year.
"A lot of hitters were late on it, including me," said Muncy. "I felt like maybe I was taking too big of a swing, I got three strikes in my last at-bat, so I shortened up and you know, he supplied the power with it and I was able to just get the bat there."
"Every year it takes a couple players you didn't count on to have big years," said Roberts. "Last year it was Chris Taylor. This year Muncy, from a guy that was a non-roster invite [to Spring Training], I didn't foresee it. He just wanted an opportunity; we gave it to him."
The tiebreaker was the sixth in Dodgers history, fourth in Los Angeles history and the first since 1980, when the Dodgers lost to Houston for the NL West. The Dodgers became the first team to earn six consecutive postseason berths since the Yankees with 13 (1995-2007). The only other team to do it was the Braves with 14 (1991-2005).
"In this day and age of parity and crazy things can happen, to have that consistency speaks to the organization," said Roberts.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Kenley stumbles: The Dodgers were poised to shut out the Rockies with a five-run lead and their All-Star closer on the mound in the ninth inning, but Jansen gave the Rockies hope by yielding back-to-back homers to Arenado and Story to open the frame. Jansen settled in to retire his next three batters, however, striking out Desmond and Gerardo Parra to end the game and clinch the division title.
"It's an awesome feeling," Jansen said of being on the mound for the clincher. "Even when it doesn't go your way, it's still awesome because at the end of the day, you've won six [division championships] in a row."
Jansen rebounded late in the season from a rough stretch in which he allowed at least one run in five of 10 outings and being shut down for 13 days because of an irregular heartbeat.
"Kenley will be fine," Honeycutt said. "For a closer, it's hard when the game is not on the line. Just a different mindset and adrenaline. ... He hates [giving up the home runs], but he's our man. We're only going to get where we want to get with him. We need him to peak right now."
The 3,857,500 home attendance this year set a Dodgers franchise mark.
HE SAID IT
"I can't say enough good things about Walker. I just have to say it behind his back or he'll get too big a head." -- Kershaw, on his confident teammate