Game 163: Dodgers win NL West; Rockies to play Cubs in wild-card game

Tim BrownMLB columnist
The Los Angeles <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/lad" data-ylk="slk:Dodgers">Dodgers</a> won the National League West for the sixth consecutive season. (EFE/Mike Nelson)
The Los Angeles Dodgers won the National League West for the sixth consecutive season. (EFE/Mike Nelson)

LOS ANGELES – Granted one more day on the season, the Los Angeles Dodgers on Monday afternoon beat the Colorado Rockies, 5-2, and clinched the organization’s sixth consecutive National League West title. The Rockies, whose first season was 1993, came one game from the first division championship in their history. The teams had finished atop the division with 91-71 records.

In the tie-breaker at Dodger Stadium, 24-year-old rookie Walker Buehler pitched 6⅔ one-hit, shutout innings and Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy hit two-run home runs against Rockies starter German Márquez. Colorado hit back-to-back home runs off Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning before the closer recorded the final three outs.

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By virtue of their win, the Dodgers will open the best-of-five division series against the NL East champion Atlanta Braves on Thursday at Dodger Stadium. The Rockies will play the Chicago Cubs in Chicago in Tuesday night’s win-or-go-home wild-card game. Left-hander Kyle Freeland, a 17-game winner, is expected to make the start on short rest for the Rockies.

The Rockies lost last season’s wild-card game to the Arizona Diamondbacks, while the Dodgers played into the World Series.

In his 23rd career start, Buehler did not allow a hit until Charlie Blackmon singled with one out in the sixth inning. He rode a 99-mph fastball and wicked slider through a Rockies lineup that had scored 58 runs in its previous seven games, all of those at Coors Field. Nearly two weeks ago, Buehler struck out 12 Rockies in a six-inning start at Dodger Stadium. On Monday afternoon, with the division (and a potential evening trip to Chicago) on the line, he had but three strikeouts, in part because the Rockies seemed eager to swing early. The result was shorter innings and a lower pitch count, allowing Buehler to pitch into the seventh and, in a sixth-inning at-bat of his own, drive in the Dodgers’ fifth run with an opposite-field single.

When he was done, Buehler handed the ball manager Dave Roberts. The Dodger Stadium crowd, in love with its new ace, rose and chanted his name. In his final four regular-season starts, Buehler had allowed two earned runs in 26⅔ innings.

In a scoreless game, Rockies starter Márquez struck out the first three batters of the fourth inning. Then he gave up a two-run home run.

The first of those three strikeout victims had reached first base on a passed ball, that the result of a miscommunication between Márquez and his catcher, Tony Wolters. On a two-ball, two-strike fastball high in the zone, Muncy swung under the pitch while Wolters was falling to his right knee, perhaps expecting a slider. The ball bounced to the backstop. With Muncy at first base, Márquez then struck out Manny Machado and Yasmani Grandal. His one-ball pitch to Bellinger was a two-seam fastball that veered into Bellinger’s swing path, then landed in the right-field bleachers. The Dodgers led, 2-0. Márquez finished the inning by striking out Buehler.

With one out, a runner at second base and Marquez losing his bearing in the fifth inning, Muncy homered on a full-count fastball. The homer was Muncy’s 35th.

The Rockies appeared to be closing in on Buehler, the 24-year-old right-hander, in the third inning. Buehler hit Ian Desmond with a fastball. Wolters followed with a sharp ground ball toward left field. Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado rushed to his right and reached with his backhand. The ball clipped his glove, then caromed off his elbow, then his upper arm, before Machado captured it in his right hand, spun, and fired to second base for the force out.

In spite of their reputation for possessing a ferocious offense, the Rockies are not even ordinary on the road, away from Coors Field. They ranked 14th – next-to-last – in road OPS among National League teams, and 13th in on-base percentage. They scored 22 runs in their final nine road games, three of those games, and six of those runs, at Dodger Stadium. That they were here at all was a testament to nearly two weeks well spent.

The Colorado Rockies will travel to Chicago on Monday night and face the Cubs Tuesday in the NL wild card game. (EFE/Mike Nelson)
The Colorado Rockies will travel to Chicago on Monday night and face the Cubs Tuesday in the NL wild card game. (EFE/Mike Nelson)

Twelve days before Monday, the Rockies departed Dodger Stadium on a three-game losing streak. They weren’t hitting. Trevor Story’s elbow was sore and, for the moment, unusable. They hadn’t scored more than three runs in a game for more than a week. The Rockies’ hopes to win the organization’s first NL West title were, at best, dimmed. From a half-game up to 2½ back, they had 10 games remaining and were better positioned in the wild card race than in the division.

They won nine of their final 10 games, even led the division outright for three days, and arrived at Dodger Stadium on Monday as confident in themselves as they’d ever been.

“I don’t know whether you learn [more],” manager Bud Black said, “it just reinforces what I thought about the group. There’s been a resiliency and a mental toughness about this group.”

Somewhere in the final 11 days, Black recalled, he thought, “Man, they’re built the right way, the toughness part.”

Nolan Arenado, previously fighting his swing, batted .333 with three home runs over the final 10 games. Story returned from his elbow injury and in seven games batted .360 with three home runs. David Dahl homered six times in his final seven games.

Freeland and Márquez continued to state that a new era of Rockies pitching had arrived.

All of which had led them here, without apology.

“Good teams end up in these games,” Black said. “They end up in these games for a reason.”

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