MILWAUKEE – They meandered through nearly seven months of listless baseball, threatening to reach their potential only to take a step back, until that pattern imperiled their very well-being.
Finally backed into a corner, forced to win a Game 7 of the National League Championship Series or go home for another bitter winter, the Los Angeles Dodgers took the fight to the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday night at Miller Park and produced a 5-1 victory that vaulted them, once again, to the World Series.
It’s the 24th Fall Classic appearance in franchise history, the 12th since their move to Los Angeles and, of course, their second in as many years under manager Dave Roberts.
Game 1 is Tuesday at Boston’s Fenway Park, a likely matchup of All-Star lefties Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw in the first World Series matchup between the Red Sox and Dodgers franchises since 1916.
It’s a historic clash more than a century in the making, and at times the Dodgers’ slog to a repeat NL title seemed that long.
In Game 7, they took a much more direct route.
Direct, as in rather than dicker around with exotic pitching maneuvers or unorthodox out-getting, they handed the ball to a 24-year-old budding ace with a 98-mph fastball and significant fortitude. Walker Buehler did not disappoint: He struck out seven Brewers in 4 2/3 innings, handing a 2-1 lead to his bullpen.
Direct, as in the path left fielder Chris Taylor took to track down a line drive off the bat of Christian Yelich in the fifth inning of a 2-1 game. He wasted not a step as he ranged into the left-center field gap and leaped at just the right moment to haul in the line drive, stranding the tying run at second base.
Direct, as in the flight off the ball off Yasiel Puig’s bat in the top of the sixth inning. Facing Jeremy Jeffress, who struck him out twice in in key spots earlier in the series, hit an absolute laser just to the left of the center wall, for a three-run homer that put the game away.
Puig and teammates erupted when the ball scurried over the wall, giving the Dodgers perhaps their biggest sigh of relief in weeks.
They needed a 163rd game to win a National League West that’s been their birthright the past six seasons. They trailed this NLCS 1-0 and 2-1, and then blew their chance to put it away in Game 6.
Saturday night, a team that truly leans on all 25 men came together for a crisply played clincher.
Cody Bellinger socked a two-run homer off Brewers starter Jhoulys Chacin, erasing a 1-0 deficit in the top of the second. That blast was preceded by a full-count push bunt by Manny Machado, the Milwaukee pariah who once again was subjected to full-throated boos from an overflow crowd of 44,097.
Buehler took that tiny bit of leverage and proceeded to tip the game in the Dodgers’ favor.
After Yelich’s one-out homer in the first, Buehler did not permit another Brewer to reach second until Travis Shaw’s leadoff double in the fourth. No problem: A four-pitch punchout of slugger Jesus Aguilar, a soft fly ball from Mike Moustakas, and another strikeout of Erik Kratz kept it 2-1.
An inning later, it was Taylor’s turn to shine, firing out and into the gap to haul in Yelich’s drive, saving reliever Julio Urias and Roberts, who tabbed Urias to retire the presumed NL MVP.
Buehler outlasted not only Chacin, but nearly Brewers relief ace Josh Hader, too. The series’ most dynamic weapon, Hader was unleashed for an extended appearance in Game 7 as many anticipated, and he did not disappoint: three innings of hitless ball, with four strikeouts.
But Chacin and Hader combined got just one more out than Buehler.
And when Puig’s shot pushed the lead to 5-1, it was all over but the bullpenning. Ryan Madson and Kenley Jansen provided hitless relief into the ninth, where Kershaw awaited to close it out – his third consecutive year pitching in relief during an elimination game.
The Brewers? They outperformed expectations throughout a 96-win season and then into a postseason where they leaned heavily on Chacin – who was unscored upon in 10 ⅓ playoff innings coming in – and their bullpen the rest of the time. That relief crew took a 14 ⅓-inning scoreless streak into Game 1, but the Dodgers torched that quickly.
The Dodgers split the four games at Miller Park, winning the most important one of all to land exactly where they figured they’d be.
Even if it took a while.