Taylor-made! Dodgers walk off into NLDS
LOS ANGELES -- Dave Roberts couldn’t predict when it was going to happen. He didn’t know in what situation, inning or game it would occur. But he knew, at some point over the next month, Chris Taylor, mired in a prolonged slump at the plate, was going to come up big for the Dodgers.
Max Scherzer, on the other hand, knew exactly when Taylor was going to deliver. With two outs in the ninth inning, Scherzer leaned over to Joe Kelly and predicted what was going to happen in the next few minutes.
“Hey, I think [Cody Bellinger] is going to get on here and CT is going to hit a homer,” Scherzer remembers telling Kelly. “Watch this.”
A sold-out Dodger Stadium watched Scherzer’s vision play out on the field as Taylor clobbered a walk-off two-run homer to send the Dodgers to the National League Division Series with a dramatic 3-1 win over the Cardinals in the NL Wild Card Game on Wednesday. It was the fourth postseason game in Dodgers history to end on a walk-off homer.
Taylor’s swing secured the Dodgers a matchup against the Giants, who dethroned them in the NL West with a franchise-record 107 wins. The series begins tonight at Oracle Park in San Francisco, and will mark the first time the longtime rivals face off in the postseason. It also will be the first postseason series between 105-plus win teams (that's never happened in the regular season, either) and their 213 combined regular-season wins are the most ever in a postseason matchup.
“I think it’s great. It’s what baseball wants,” Roberts said. “Giants, Dodgers, one of the great rivalries in sports, and it’s happening.”
While Scherzer was certainly brave enough to call his shot on Taylor’s moment, the Dodgers’ All-Star utility man admitted that not even he could’ve predicted being the hero in a win-or-go-home game, especially because he wasn't even in the starting lineup, entering on defense in the seventh.
Since making his first All-Star appearance, Taylor hadn’t produced at the same clip in the second half, hitting .223 with 79 strikeouts in 54 games. His production was especially down in September, where he posted a .402 OPS, by far the lowest in any month this season. A nagging neck injury that forced him to miss nearly a dozen games just a few weeks ago played a role in his struggles. The combination of it all saw Taylor go from the team’s most invaluable player in the first half to a reserve down the stretch.
But when he stepped up to the plate, all those recent struggles went out the window. Taylor saw a slider from Cardinals right-hander Alex Reyes to begin the at-bat. He knew he would get another one. He was right, and he turned on a 2-1 slider. It landed 420 feet away in the left-field bleachers while Taylor raised his hands in celebration as he rounded first. His teammates eagerly waited around home plate. Even Nationals superstar Juan Soto and hitting coach Kevin Long, who were in attendance to support Trea Turner and Scherzer, were seen jumping up and down in celebration.
Taylor became the fifth player in Major League history to hit a walk-off homer in a winner-take-all postseason game, joining Edwin Encarnacion (2016 AL Wild Card), Aaron Boone (2003 ALCS), Chris Chambliss (1976 ALCS) and Bill Mazeroski (1960 World Series).
“These are the types of moments that you dream about and live for,” Taylor said. “To be able to look back on this for the rest of my life, I just feel fortunate that I was able to come through in that spot.”
While it was Taylor who delivered the iconic moment, the Dodgers did plenty of good things leading up to his heroics. Scherzer didn’t have his best stuff on the mound, but the right-hander battled and only allowed one run over 4 1/3 innings. Once Scherzer exited the game, the Dodgers used five relievers to keep the game tied. All combined, Dodgers pitchers held the Cardinals to 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position and stranded 11 St. Louis runners on base.
Offensively, Justin Turner got the scoring started for the Dodgers with his franchise-leading 13th career postseason homer, a solo shot off Adam Wainwright in the fourth. But one player who played an unexpectedly big role was Bellinger.
The 2019 NL MVP had endured a forgettable regular season. He battled injuries and didn’t have much success at the plate, posting a career-low .165 batting average. But on Wednesday, Bellinger got on base three times and stole two bags. None was bigger than his two-out walk against left-hander T.J. McFarland to set the stage for Taylor.
“He’s going to be better going forward as a ballplayer and as a person going through this adversity this year,” Roberts said. “That’s what we need from him, to be that dynamic player, not that one-dimensional home run hitter. He’s embraced that, and he helped us win a ballgame tonight.”
With Max Muncy injured and unavailable through at least the NLDS, the Dodgers are going to need Bellinger and Taylor to step up offensively. Both have been key pieces to the Dodgers’ puzzle over the last handful of seasons. The last few months haven’t gone their way, but the start of the postseason serves as a clean slate.
“I think at this point, I think it’s time to forget the season and move on to the postseason and try to help this team any way you can,” Bellinger said. “The results are definitely always nice to see.”
When the Dodgers arrived at Spring Training in February, they repeatedly talked about the difficulties that come with repeating as World Series champions. They hope to become the first team to accomplish the feat since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998-2000.
On Wednesday, they got a reminder of just how difficult their journey for a repeat will be. That path only gets tougher against the Giants.
“They’re a great, talented team,” Scherzer said. “They obviously showed that over the course of the season, so it’s going to take absolutely everything from us to win this series. So here we go, let’s play some baseball.”