How does a team do this: lose the first two games of a best-of-seven National League Championship Series, face three consecutive elimination games, trail Game 7 in the sixth inning and still find a way to reach its third World Series in the last four years?
“We’re resilient,” said Cody Bellinger, whose seventh-inning home run off Chris Martin decided a 4-3 win over the Braves on Sunday night at Globe Life Field in Arlington. “I think when you see every day the lineup we have -- we can do this. Why can’t we do this? We’ve won three games [in a row] before, all the time.”
Well, not three games like this, games that brought out enough of the best of the best team in baseball during the regular season. In a tense finale to a dramatic series, the Dodgers added one huge weapon to an already massive arsenal -- clutch.
“This is our year!” said manager Dave Roberts.
They also showed how they can beat you in so many ways -- from home runs by Kiké Hernández to tie the game and Bellinger to go ahead, to a bullpen that shut down Atlanta over the final five innings, the last three of which were pitched by Julio Urías four days after he threw 101 pitches. He retired all nine batters he faced as Roberts stuck with him instead of bringing in Kenley Jansen, who had pitched in the previous two wins.
“Kenley’s been great, he’s been absolutely great, and we wouldn’t be on our way to the World Series without him,” Roberts said. “I just think Julio with rest, how he was throwing the baseball, in preceding days what we asked of Kenley as far as usage-wise, and riding the hot hand right there.”
Roberts rode the hot hand and pushed all the buttons right into the World Series, which opens on Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Rays, the team that lost Andrew Friedman to the Dodgers in 2014.
“I have close personal relationships; [they are] some of my closest friends,” the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations said of his ties to Tampa Bay. “But my focus is what we’re doing here. We came back from 3-1. All of our focus was on tonight, and now we’re focused on four more wins.”
Friedman built a roster busting at the seams with talent, and it cruised through the pandemic-delayed season like no other, finishing with a Major League-best 43-17 record.
“Everybody was expecting us to get to the World Series,” said Hernández. “We were expecting us to get to the World Series, to the point that when we were down, 3-1, we hadn’t gone through any adversity throughout the season. It was time to get it done. By then, we had nothing to lose -- they have something to lose, they shouldn’t lose this series. We took it one inning at a time and were able to pull it off. But the job’s not done. The goal isn’t to get to the World Series, it’s to win the World Series.”
As several generations know well, the Dodgers haven’t done that since 1988. But they also hadn’t overcome three consecutive elimination games since 1981. They are just the second team in the NLCS era (since 1969) to win the NL pennant three times in a span of four postseasons. This is the fourth time a team has rallied from both 2-0 and 3-1 deficits to win a best-of-seven series and the first since the 2004 Red Sox in the ALCS, which featured Roberts’ famous stolen base.
The bullpen, just one more weapon the Dodgers have to beat you, shut Atlanta down. And speaking of weapons, how about Mookie Betts, who cued up his third remarkable catch of the series, this time robbing Freddie Freeman of a home run with a goaltending snag in the fifth inning to keep the deficit at one run?
“Today was my favorite [of the three], because that was a home run,” said Betts, who had also made momentum-swinging catches in Games 5 and 6.
“This is really the first time we’ve had our backs against the wall,” Betts said. “All season we’ve been controlling games, controlling series and whatnot. Seemed like we were getting handled early on and we were able to get a hold of ourselves and start to fight back, and it just shows you the kind of group we have. Nothing’s going to be easy, but we’ll strike fast before you can even think about it, and that’s what we did.”
Betts’ catch wasn’t even the biggest defensive play of the night for the Dodgers. That was pulled off by third baseman Justin Turner. He lured the Braves into a rally-killing double play on the bases in the fourth inning, and Atlanta’s offense was never heard from again.
“The double play by Justin, with Treinen just coming in to limit damage, started it to keep the game where it’s at,” said Roberts, who also credited Turner for working an easily overlooked walk with two outs in the third that kept alive an inning in which Will Smith beat the shift with a two-run single.
Let’s not forget Smith. Two games after his three-run homer, he emerged as a hero again in that third-inning at-bat, intentionally taking starter Ian Anderson the other way for half of the offensive output.
“What our hitting guys talk a lot about [is] understanding the game situation, and there was a shift and he got a breaking ball and he stayed inside and above it and drove in a couple of runs instead of trying to hit a three-run homer,” Roberts said. “Will’s done that numerous times for us. For a young player to understand that part of the game is very impressive.”
It also says something about the depth of contributions that the series MVP, Corey Seager, went 0-for-5 in the clincher. He still finished the series with an NLCS-record five homers and 11 RBIs.
“You can’t say enough about what this team’s done,” said Seager.