LOS ANGELES -- Before this season began, Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi was trying to explain how crummy last year's National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and the Cubs felt.
It wasn't crummy just because the Dodgers squandered a 2-1 series lead, losing three straight games by a combined score of 23-6. It wasn't crummy just because Zaidi and others felt like the Dodgers had chances, real chances, to beat the Cubs. And it wasn't crummy just because it marked the 28th consecutive season that the Dodgers -- a proud organization that sees itself as a perennial championship team -- was unable to reach the World Series.
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No, there was something else.
"There's a particular kind of sting," Zaidi said, "to being a prop in someone else's feel-good story."
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Yes, a year ago, as the Cubs marched to one of the most iconic championships ever, the Dodgers were a bit player, a supporting actor, an afterthought. The Cubs took the whole stage, leaving no spotlight at all for a city that thrives on the spotlight.
"We feel like we're a pretty good team," Zaidi said. "You get the feeling people said, 'OF COURSE the Cubs beat the Dodgers.' ... That's not how we felt."
And so, that has been a theme all season with the Dodgers. This, they believe, is their year to be the feel-good story. You could feel that energy and hunger all year with the Dodgers. You could feel that energy and hunger at Dodger Stadium on Saturday night during the Dodgers' 5-2 victory in Game 1 of the NLCS presented by Camping World.
"I think that the season we had [this year] versus the season they had last year, I think you could parallel those two," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "And the confidence we have in our group [this year] versus the confidence they had in their group. ... I just know that this year we're a very focused group, very confident group."
You often hear analysts say Game 1 of a championship series is a must-win game ... it isn't, not really, but there was no hiding the urgency for Los Angeles. The Dodgers needed this game. They were at home, starting a well-rested Clayton Kershaw, while the Cubs, still a bit scrambled after their draining five-game series with Washington, had just flown across the country and were forced to start midseason pickup Jose Quintana, who pitched just two days earlier.
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But things did not start well for Los Angeles. A few hours before first pitch, the Dodgers announced that star shortstop Corey Seager was not on the NLCS roster because of a bad back that just didn't get better fast enough.
"Yeah," a crushed Seager said before the game, "this sucks, to be honest."
And then the Dodgers fell behind, 2-0, when Kershaw threw a slider that was a bit up, and the Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. clubbed it over the left-field wall, a 412-foot shot that silenced a raucous Dodger Stadium and might have sparked a few memories from last year.
But, the Dodgers will tell you, they are a much different team from last year, not just because they've added key players like Chris Taylor and Cody Bellinger, but because of their resiliency. And because they win by relentlessly pounding teams into submission.
"We just keep coming at you," Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes said. "That's the whole team philosophy. Keep battling. You don't have to be the hero. Just battle. We've got a lot of guys who can be the hero."
And that's exactly how it played out. The Dodgers had trouble getting anything going early against Quintana, but in the fifth inning John Forsythe and Barnes drew back-to-back walks. And then Yasiel Puig was the first hero, hitting a run-scoring double; his arms were raised already as he rounded first base. Puig's energy and enthusiasm and contentious displays on the field have been the subject of countless opinions. But right now, his crazy joy for the game powers the Dodgers.
"Is this the most fun you've ever had playing baseball?" Puig was asked.
"No," he said and smiled. "When I was 5 years old, I played better."
Charlie Culberson was the second hero. He's a 28-year-old utility player on his third team, and he was the player who was asked to play shortstop in place of Seager. With a runner on third and one out, the Cubs were utterly convinced he would bunt, and they brought both Kristopher Bryant and Anthony Rizzo way in, as if Culberson were a pitcher. But with two strikes, Culberson hit a fly ball that was deep enough to bring home Barnes, and the score was tied at 2-2.
Taylor was the third hero. He has been an extraordinary player for the Dodgers all year. He did not make the team out of Spring Training, but since he was called up, he has played center field, left field, second base, third base and shortstop. He has hit all year with surprising power. And in the sixth inning, he punched a home run to right field off Cubs reliever Hector Rondon to give the Dodgers a 3-2 lead.
Kenta Maeda was the fourth hero, pitching a perfect inning in relief to earn the win. And then, more heroes, lots of them; five Dodgers relievers threw four perfect innings.
Puig had a another moment, hitting a home run off Cubs reliever Mike Montgomery. And even Culberson had a hero encore by legging out a double and then scoring an insurance run on a controversial play. He tried to score on a Justin Turner single and was tagged out at home by Cubs catcher Willson Contreras. Culberson did not even touch the plate. But on replay review, the call was overturned and Culberson scored because Contreras illegally blocked the plate. Cubs manager Joe Maddon was outraged (and ejected) and spent roughly 95 percent of his postgame news conference answering questions about that play.
"I saw a great baseball play," Maddon said.
And: "I, from Day 1, have totally disagreed with the content of that rule. I think it's wrong."
And: "See, I don't think the rule was called correctly either."
And: "I've got to stick up for my boys. I've got to stick up for everybody that plays this game."
The longer he went on about that play, the more I wondered about Zaidi's notion of this being the Dodgers' year. A year ago, the Cubs felt like a team of destiny. Everything seemed to be going their way. And now, while Maddon griped about a play at the plate that even he admitted didn't matter all that much, the Dodgers seemed in a better place. Puig relived his home run; he had stood at home plate to admire it before realizing that it might not actually get out. It barely did.
"I think the wind helped me a little bit tonight," he admitted.
And that's exactly it. This year, it seems like the wind is behind the Dodgers.