The Dodgers were supposed to be in the World Series. But it didn't make getting there easier

As the man tasked with standing out in front of it all, answering for it, walking alone to and from the field when it’s good and when it’s very, very bad, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, now five years into this, on Sunday night heard his own voice crack and felt tears rise in him.

The Dodgers had played themselves into the World Series again, and the 28 players draped upon one another on a field in Arlington, Texas had done most of the work.

They were exactly where they were supposed to be, where everyone believed they’d be, up until about four days ago. Even then, the prospect of his Dodgers winning three games in three days against the Atlanta Braves wasn’t so far-fetched, and then they knocked those out one after another, on Sunday night when Cody Bellinger homered in the seventh inning and Mookie Betts took a homer away and Julio Urias pitched the final three innings without allowing so much as a baserunner.

“This year is our year,” Roberts had shouted from a podium set up in a stadium that wasn’t theirs, in front of fans who might have been theirs, near the end of a season that really wasn’t anybody’s. “This is our year.”

He couldn’t be sure of that yet. The Tampa Bay Rays, a franchise Dodgers president Andrew Friedman helped raise, are next. They are good, too. Just Saturday afternoon, in the seventh game of the American League Championship Series, they’d shaken free of a summer that had asked so much of anyone willing to take it on.

If you could be absolutely sure leaving home in the middle of July against pandemic headwinds for 3 ½ months was the way to the World Series, then, sure, you show up and take your tests and FaceTime with your family and keep your distance and play ball in parks that echoed. But, just as the Rays had to play themselves back into the ALCS after being up three games to none, the Dodgers had to play themselves back into the NLCS after being down three games to one, and it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to win 40 games in a 60-game season, as the Rays had, and then wonder if it could end badly, or to win 43 games in the same summer and then, as Betts described the early part of the week, “Seems like we were being handled a little bit early on.”

It’s a lot to carry, maybe. A lot to endure. In the bubble, there’s nowhere to go except inward. The Dodgers beat the Atlanta Braves, 4-3, on Sunday night because Kiké Hernández hit a pinch-hit home run, and because Will Smith stayed on this side of a two-out curveball, and because Justin Turner made a two-part defensive play that was first merely athletic and then positively brilliant, and because Roberts himself saw what was working and what was not, his usual assignment.

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Julio Urias celebrates their win against the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 of a baseball National League Championship Series Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Dodgers pitcher Julio Urias celebrates after recording the last out of NLCS Game 7. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

But also because they heeded the thousands of decisions in the 21 hours around all the previous baseball games, all the days they couldn’t be sure would amount to anything but a prorated paycheck. It didn’t make them good at baseball, but it did make them available for baseball, and it would have been difficult to reach the World Series without that.

“It was a little harder than we thought it was going to be,” Hernández said. “But we pulled it off.”

Roberts is 48 years old. By now, he’s been hardened by the stuff that worked and the stuff that didn’t, covered by good luck, burned by bad luck, exposed and empowered by the nature of a game that in its final month refuses to recognize Hall of Fame resumes or MVP awards. It gets harder to ride with the outcomes when those don’t come until the end of October or the beginning of November. It doesn’t forgive quite that easily, and so the man who stood out in front of it all suddenly was four wins away. Again. Four wins away, when the only acceptable outcome was exactly where they are today, and four hours before the rookie pitcher who’d started the game didn’t throw a strike until his ninth pitch. And the rookie pitcher who came in after him wobbled too. And so the whole pitching plan, the one with all the moving parts that was going to contain the second-best offense in baseball at least until Bellinger could unload on a fastball, went sideways, and then Roberts was chasing outs like they were uncashed lottery stubs on a windy day, right up until he gave the ball to Julio Urias.

So they’ll go find out what the World Series will bring, for the third time in four years, and remember that just because they were supposed to be there didn’t make any of the hundred days of baseball in 2020 easier. In fact, it might have made them more trying.

By late Sunday night, Austin Riley’s fly ball to center field fell into Bellinger’s glove, ending for the Braves what four days before seemed so close to being their year. It was a reminder that Game 7 is not one story, it is two. Within those, dozens more. And within those dozens, a man who’d stood out in front of it for five years, and then wondered if he was really going to cry on national television in front of all those people.

What it offered was that none of this was easy, not even the parts that looked easy. Not for the teams that fell early and had no hope for October baseball, not for the teams that had just missed the playoffs, or the teams that lost in previous series, or the two teams that remain. The players are young and bulletproof, and so they jumped around and hoisted their children to their shoulders and laughed with their wives.

Roberts looked out over them, having seen and experienced a season that five or six months before hadn’t seemed likely, and then knew there could only be one outcome. If they were actually going to schedule a World Series, then the Dodgers were going to have to be in it, and damn there they were, and damn that can get to a guy if he were to let it.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just that, to see where we came from — and I preface this by saying the job’s not done and we all understand that — but to start with pandemic and a lot of things going on and guys not with their families and all the social injustices going on, there’s been a lot of sacrifices from guys. And guys were uncomfortable. But still to buy into what we were doing to win baseball games and to make such a difficult year a positive. … There’s a lot of things that had to happen. We did it. So, I don’t know. It just all just came together. And I was really happy for our guys.”

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