Playing a recent NL MVP winner has rarely been questionable. Yet it felt questionable for much of the season as the loaded Los Angeles Dodgers kept penciling in Cody Bellinger as he floundered to a miserable .165/.240/.302 line.
Two seasons after earning that hardware with 47 homers, his extreme downturn perhaps cost the Dodgers the one or two wins that could have pushed them past the San Francisco Giants in an epic NL West race.
They didn’t win that race, but after surviving a wild-card game and earning a best-of-five duel with the Giants that (of course) required a tightly wound NLDS Game 5 to decide it, Bellinger found the ultimate way to make up for a lost year.
Facing San Francisco’s young, recently anointed closer Camilo Doval, Bellinger broke through with an RBI single in the ninth inning that sent the 106-win Dodgers to the NLCS, and the 107-win Giants into the clutches of an offseason that arrived too soon.
After a sterling eighth from Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers called on Max Scherzer to close the game as Los Angeles advanced with a 2-1 win in an instant classic with a stomach-churning ending. Scherzer's final pitch induced a check swing from Giants first baseman Wilmer Flores. He appears to hold up, but first-base umpire Gabe Morales wrung him up to end the game and the Giants' out-of-nowhere storybook season.
The call that ended it. What a brutal way to go down after 109 wins. pic.twitter.com/aJ7oE0p405
— Alex Pavlovic (@PavlovicNBCS) October 15, 2021
The Dodgers will face the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS for the second consecutive season. Last season's Braves went up 3-1 before Los Angeles rallied to win the pennant and eventually the World Series in the COVID-altered postseason played at a neutral site in Texas.
A rivalry produces a classic NLDS
The NLDS clash of rival juggernauts evoked the Yankees-Red Sox ALCS collisions of 2003 and 2004. By the time Thursday’s Game 5 rolled around, both teams had notched exactly 109 wins on the season. The Giants had a 12-11 lead in the season series — an edge which had previously decided the NL West race.
The game played to those expectations, screaming “evenly matched” in every way it could find.
An eyebrow-raising Dodgers decision to start with an opener instead of Julio Urias ended up working out as designed. Right-handers Corey Knebel and Brusdar Graterol worked scoreless, if anxious, frames and convinced the Giants to burn some hitters with substitutions when the left-handed Urias entered for the third. He eventually tossed four innings, allowing just the one run on Darin Ruf’s homer.
The Giants, meanwhile, did just fine by putting their trust in Logan Webb. The 24-year-old who came into the season completely unheralded slung around his signature blend of sinkers and changeups to log a second dominant, lengthy start of this NLDS.
Despite the varying paths — Mookie Betts logged four hits for Los Angeles but was repeatedly left on base — they remained neck and neck to the end. Both teams scored one run in the sixth inning. And both got to their closers in the eighth inning. The stat lines at that moment were carbon copies: One run, six hits, no errors for each side.
From there, Bellinger's was the bat that broke through. The decisive ninth-inning rally began with Doval plunking Justin Turner. Gavin Lux then singled to move Turner to second. Giants manager Gabe Kapler stuck with Doval, who fed Bellinger a steady diet of sliders. After swinging over one and fouling off another, he stroked a 1-2 pitch into right field to score Turner.
Backs against the wall, the Giants threatened against Scherzer in the bottom of the inning. Kris Bryant reached on an error, and LaMonte Wade Jr. — who earned a reputation for late-night heroics — crushed several loud foul balls in a pinch-hit appearance. But Scherzer weathered it, striking out Wade and eventually Flores on the controversial check swing call to keep Dodgers' season going.
The Dodgers entered the season as one of the most talented teams ever assembled, on paper. Expected to race the San Diego Padres for supremacy in an exciting NL West, they instead spent the summer chasing a San Francisco team built by former Dodgers executive Farhan Zaidi. The Giants front office and a sprawling coaching staff invigorated a team of 30-something stars and unknown commodities, and they beat the odds to relegate the Dodgers to a wild-card spot.
That regular season victory will be remembered, and perhaps rehashed in years to come. But the end result in 2021 will look familiar to the preseason expectations — a relief for the defending champs in Los Angeles, and a gut-punch for the unexpected titans in San Francisco.