By Sam Bush
The Los Angeles Dodgers have lived to fight another day, rallying on home runs by Kiké Hernandez and Cody Bellinger to beat the Braves, 4-3 Game 7 of the NLCS last night.
The Dodgers became the first National League team to fall behind 2-0 and 3-1 in a best-of-seven series and come back to win. (Four American League teams have done it.)
“From the moment that we were able to put a season together – once they figured out the COVID thing – everybody was expecting us to get to the World Series. We were expecting us to get to the World Series,” Hernandez said. “Up to the point where we went down 3-1 in this series, we hadn’t really gone through any adversity this season. That was the one thing. It was time to get it done.
“It was the first time not just going through adversity but kind of feeling like you’ve got nothing to lose. They were the ones who had something to lose. You have a 3-1 lead. You shouldn’t lose this series. We were able to take it one game at a time, one inning at a time. We were able to pull it off.”
It is the third time in the past four years that the Dodgers will be one of the last two teams standing. Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Rays is Tuesday at 5 p.m. PT.
“You know, we’ve worked our ass off all year,” NLCS MVP Corey Seager said. “Following protocols, being away from family at times, being here in the bubble quarantined. It hasn’t been easy. We’ve been up to the challenge and we’re sticking with it and we’re gonna keep going.”
In a matchup of evenly-equipped teams, the Dodgers held one distinct advantage over the Braves – starting pitching. While the Braves have managed with two, maybe three, the Dodgers had five.
Clayton Kershaw’s back spasms reworked the equation some, but the Dodgers changed the math entirely, opting to use Dustin May out of the bullpen early in the series, starting him on three days’ rest in Game 5 – then bringing him back again after one day off to serve as the “opener” in Game 7.
Roberts explained the decision as a way to give May “the certainty” of when he would pitch and which batters he would face. This “certainty” didn’t come until Sunday afternoon, however, and May looked decidedly uncertain as he missed the strike zone with his first eight pitches. Marcell Ozuna cashed in the door prize with an RBI single.
Tony Gonsolin would have been the easy choice to start Game 7. He started Game 2 and was on normal rest. Instead, the Dodgers wanted him to avoid the top of the Braves’ lineup (Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman and Ozuna) until he had settled in.
Robbed of “the certainty” the Dodgers gave May, Gonsolin served up a solo home run to the first batter he faced, Dansby Swanson and – shades of May – back-to-back walks to start the fourth after Will Smith’s two-out, two-run single had tied the score in the third.
The Braves regained the lead on an RBI single by Austin Riley and were poised to do so much more when the Dodgers’ first hero stepped up.
A wild pitch put runners at second and third with no outs. The Dodgers played their infield at normal depth but when Nick Markakis bounced a ground ball to third baseman Justin Turner he quickly threw home and Swanson was caught in a rundown. Turner ended it with a full-out dive, swiping a tag (barely) on Swanson’s leg then popping up and throwing to third base where Seager was covering and Riley had run into a double play, waiting too long to try and replace Markakis at third.
“That was huge. That was huge,” Mookie Betts said. “I didn’t even see the backside play. I didn’t. Once he dove and made the tag I thought the play was over. They were still in pretty decent shape with guys on first and second at that time, with one out.
“That’s a big momentum shift.”
It was a whole lot of bacon to save on one play and Betts added to the platter an inning later.
For the third consecutive game, the right fielder showed why his glove is golden. With one out in the fifth, Freeman drove him back to the wall. Betts went up – as he did in Game 6 – and came down with the ball, this time having robbed a home run.
“JT’s play was huge. Being second and third, no outs and getting out of the inning with only giving up one run,” Seager said. “Then Mookie taking away a potential homer – another spark.”
That was the Braves’ last scoring opportunity. They didn’t have another hit and only one baserunner after Turner’s play. Whatever they got wrong in their pitching script, they got one thing very right – Julio Urias was brilliant. Handed the ball to start the seventh, Roberts rode him to the end and Urias retired the final nine Braves in order.
“I didn’t know Julio was going back out there for the ninth but after I saw him I was pumped up,” Turner said. “He doesn’t scare off. He loves to pitch on the big stage and he’s done it all postseason for us.”
Urias inherited a tie game when Hernandez came off the bench to face lefty A.J. Minter (the Game 5 starter who shut them out for three innings, striking out seven of 10 Dodgers he faced) in the sixth.