MILWAUKEE – The Los Angeles Dodgers drag their butts down the line sometimes, or seek to accelerate through a feet-first slide, or kick the ball around some, or generally play the whole October thing through a smirk not befitting a club three decades without a championship.
It is sometimes as though anything less than a World Series title is beneath them, which, granted, there’s some validity to, as a club built to win now – as of at least six years ago – has not, as we mentioned, won big for a while. Except there’s the matter of rolling the rock up the hill again, the part about six months of baseball summer, the full month after that, all the tiny little places that perhaps seem insignificant in the moment and are in reality not insignificant ever.
It is presumably exhausting. And it is without a doubt difficult. It also is necessary, even if baseball is a game with a habit of rewarding the purest effort with an oh-fer, a blown hamstring and a pie in the face anyway.
Teams – rotating groups of 25 men, cores of maybe 15 or 18 – find their way or do not, accept each other or do not, forgive each other for lapses or do not. Then, they win or do not.
Soon after, it’ll be spring again.
So, these are the Dodgers, enough of whom kill themselves for what – you never know – could be one more shot at this, a few of whom are on their own path, the sum of which on Saturday night tied the National League Championship Series against the Milwaukee Brewers at a game apiece. It’s a funny game that way, there being so much air between the good and the bad or, if you’d rather, the beautiful and the gory. We deconstruct and deconstruct some more until there’s hardly anything left, mopping the pool deck with whatever’s left of a paper towel until our knuckles bleed, and after 18 innings and almost eight hours of baseball Justin Turner hits a ball to forever and it’s Dodgers 1, Brewers 1 in the NLCS, which feels about right.
“It takes a special athlete to have a night like he had last night and to show up the next day in a big spot and want to have the bat in your hand,” said Dave Roberts, the Dodgers manager and man in charge of the beautiful and gory. “Justin is that guy. And those are hard to come by.
“Obviously, everyday starting pitcher is probably the most important person in the organization that day. … But if you’re talking about the grind, the tough conversations, the identity of our club, he’s probably the face. He personifies everything that I believe in as a baseball player, as a professional.”
They beat the Brewers, 4-3, on an afternoon that had turned to evening, because the guy who struck out four times the night before got a meaty split-fingered fastball from a guy who seemed to be begging to throw a five-run inning. Jeremy Jeffress didn’t give up a run in all of September, hardly even came close to giving one up, and then the calendar page turned and baserunners are falling out of trees. The Dodgers, playing the long game in a series that could go as many as seven, haven’t gotten a starting pitcher past the fifth inning, and the Brewers, playing the short one, have allowed 13 hits in 29 at-bats in the seventh inning or later, so you play the game and roll the rock and swab the cement and board a flight to L.A.
The night before, 16 hours before, the Brewers’ bullpen threw the last of its 132 pitches, a fastball from Corey Knebel that beat Turner (for strikeout No. 4) and summoned a panicky exhale from bleachers. Josh Hader threw 46 of them. He hadn’t thrown so many pitches in one game in more than a year, so on Saturday his job was to wear a jacket and keep his buddies company in the bullpen. Probably a go-get-em or two. A get-you-a-water, maybe.
And suddenly, for a day, the bullpen looked wholly different, unless you watched most everybody after Hader the night before, in which case it looked about where they’d left it.
And, then, it was the Dodgers who appeared weary, distracted, however that’s supposed to look, until the at-bats turned heated and precise, that also having something to do with who was doing the pitching.
And Yasiel Puig, who’d broken a bat over his thigh in the seventh inning as punishment for swinging at a slider a foot from the zone, in the eighth inning chased down a dangerous fly ball in Miller Park’s craggy right field, looking for a moment like a man chasing a ringing phone hidden somewhere in his house.
“I was looking for the fence first and later looking for the ball,” he said. “It was a little bit difficult.”
And Cody Bellinger, who’d been hitless in 17 at-bats, 15 since the October flag went up, singled home a run in the seventh, then hurtled into the right-center field gap to take a double from Ryan Braun in the bottom of the inning.
And a bullpen that was supposed to be the JV in this series held the final 18 Brewers batters to one hit, Kenley Jansen in the end breaking Christian Yelich’s bat with a cutter at the letters, sending them all home – Dodgers and Brewers alike — with precisely what they deserved, because that’s the only way baseball will have it.
It had, on cue, become rather taut for the Dodgers, whose only butt-dragging for now will come after a long day’s work followed by a four-hour flight followed by a feet-first slide into a familiar bed.
After that, they win, or they do not. The rest is people being who they are, ballplayers being who they are, a rock on a hill.
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