Dodgers finally overtake Giants, reach NLCS

October 16th, 2021

SAN FRANCISCO -- raised his right hand and pointed it directly at the visiting dugout. He knew he had squared up a Camilo Doval slider well enough to send it past the shift and into the outfield. 

Once he stepped on first base, Bellinger pounded his chest multiple times and yelled loud enough to be heard through the shocked groans of a packed Oracle Park.

By all accounts, Bellinger had a forgettable regular season at the plate. His .165 batting average was one of the worst in the Majors for a player with at least 300 at-bats. His struggles, just two years removed from a National League MVP Award, were one of the most shocking developments of the 2021 season.

But with one swing of the bat, Bellinger erased it all and delivered the biggest hit of the Dodgers’ season, a two-strike RBI single in the ninth inning to help Los Angeles beat San Francisco, 2-1, in a thrilling Game 5 of the NL Division Series on Thursday night.

After surviving an action-packed five-game series against their longtime rivals and the team they chased for seven months in the division, the Dodgers earned a chance for a rematch in the NL Championship Series against the Braves that begins on Saturday at Truist Park.

“I learned a lot from the season, and now it’s the postseason,” Bellinger said. “Just keep having faith in myself and just keep staying in the moment and doing everything that I can to help this team win.”

In order for the Dodgers to finally get past the Giants, they needed just about every player on the roster to contribute. Through eight innings, the Dodgers and Giants had the same number of runs, hits and men left on base, a fitting summary of just how close the battles were between the two longtime rivals over the last seven months.

The regular-season series was decided in their last meeting. Their run differential was just two runs. They became the first pair of teams to have 105 or more wins in a single division. It was one of the most thrilling regular-season races in recent memory.

Coming into the series, a Game 5 seemed almost inevitable. In the end, the first postseason series between the two historic franchises delivered in every way.

“The Giants are an incredible team, talented one through 26,” said Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. “We knew it was going to be a tough series, but I don’t think we appreciated the full extent of it until living it. Obviously we feel really good about being on the side of it that we were, but we appreciate how razor-thin the margins were.”

Just hours before the game, the Dodgers announced they were starting reliever Corey Knebel as an opener, not Julio Urías, who won 20 games during the regular season. The move, while risky, turned out well for the Dodgers as Knebel and Brusdar Graterol tossed a scoreless inning each before handing the ball off to Urías. The Mexican-born left-hander delivered, allowing only one run on a Darin Ruf homer over four innings.

“He pitched his tail off, and [it was] certainly unconventional,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of Urías. “I give him so much credit for taking the baseball when asked to and pitching really well.”

Once Urías came out of the game, the Dodgers turned to Blake Treinen, Kenley Jansen and Max Scherzer, who recorded his first career save with a scoreless ninth. Scherzer, who was slated to be the Game 1 starter against the Braves, said he could still be ready to pitch on Saturday, depending on how his arm feels on Friday.

But on Thursday, all he could think about was the collective effort of the Dodgers’ pitching staff. In two elimination games, the unit -- which boasted baseball’s lowest ERA (3.01) during the regular season -- responded by holding the Giants’ offense to just three runs in 18 innings.

“Kudos to absolutely everybody,” Scherzer said. “They lead the league in homers. Like I said, we have a ton of respect for what [the Giants] can do. So kudos to our staff for being able to pitch as well as we did.”

While the pitching staff was throwing up zeros, the Dodgers’ offense was struggling to get much going against right-hander Logan Webb for the second time in the series. Outside of three Mookie Betts singles, Webb had full control of the Los Angeles lineup. But a Corey Seager RBI double in the sixth inning finally got the Dodgers on the board.

Once the Giants went into the bullpen, the task didn’t get much easier for the Dodgers. Doval has established himself as a force on the mound for the Giants, and he showed his dominance in Game 3 of the series. But after a Justin Turner hit-by-pitch and a Gavin Lux single, the stage was set for Bellinger, who is no stranger to the big moment.

When the Dodgers need a clutch hit, Bellinger seems to always rise to the occasion. His game-winning homer in Game 7 of last year’s NLCS against the Braves sent the Dodgers to the World Series. He also opened the scoring in Game 1 of the 2020 World Series against the Rays with a long homer off Tyler Glasnow. In this series, Bellinger had already delivered a clutch two-run double in the Game 2 win.

Though Bellinger went 2-for-48 with 21 strikeouts against the Giants during the regular season, the only swing that will be remembered is the one that delivered a clutch RBI single to push the Dodgers that much closer to repeating as World Series champions. With his big hit on Thursday, Bellinger now has three career go-ahead hits in winner-take-all games, tying Manny Ramirez and Gene Tenace for the most all-time.

“He’s been in so many big spots in his young career, and I think his ability to slow it down and how hard he’s worked to put himself in a big position to get a big hit shouldn’t get lost in all of this,” Friedman said. “Obviously struggled throughout the regular season, but it never stopped him from working and grinding.”

The Dodgers have played in countless postseason series over the last decade and their experience was on full display in Game 5. But throughout their current run of dominance, perhaps no series was as tightly contested as this one.

Both teams came into Thursday’s game with 109 wins this season. The team to 110 would move on to the next round. After chasing the Giants for seven months, the Dodgers can finally say they got past them.

“We poured everything we could into this series and it took everything we had to beat these guys,” Roberts said. “But we have a day to reset and now our focus turns to the Braves.”