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Walker Buehler leads Dodgers to NL West title and into NLDS

Los Angeles times sports writer Andy McCullough and columnist Dylan Hernandez discuss how the Dodgers made it to the postseason and what their chances are.

Walker Buehler wedged his slender frame through a teeming throng inside the Dodger Stadium clubhouse Monday. He sloshed across puddles of Beau Joie Brut and Budweiser, celebratory alcohol spilled because of Buehler's right arm. He caught sight of a stooped figure wearing ski goggles and a Dodgers blue parka. Buehler opened his arms to embrace the man in front of him.

"I'm so proud of you," Tom Lasorda said. "You're going to be a Dodger for a long time."

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All around the 24-year-old budding ace and the 91-year-old Hall of Famer, the Dodgers consecrated their sixth consecutive National League West title after a 5-2 victory over Colorado. They reclaimed their crown in the 163rd game of the season, one game beyond the number required by the sport and far later than the team intended. They needed a midsummer surge to offset an early-season swoon, and a tiebreaker to hold off the red-hot Rockies. The trauma only heightened the triumph.

Comatose in April and adrift in August, the Dodgers ended the regular season in the same spot they have occupied since 2013. They will host Atlanta in Game 1 of a National League Division Series on Thursday, hoping to secure the World Series championship that has eluded this franchise since 1988.

"This one is sweeter because everybody gave up on us in April," closer Kenley Jansen said. "Like, 'Oh, this is not the Dodgers' year.' We turned our season around and here we are again."

To do so, the Dodgers called upon Buehler, their swaggering rookie starter. His politer teammates refer to his confidence — "You don't have to tell Walker how good he is," Clayton Kershaw said — while others offer a more candid way to describe an arsenal that includes a 98-mph fastball, multiple effective breaking balls and an unflappable demeanor. He inspires expletives. "He's gross," Cody Bellinger said. "I mean, he's cocky as hell, too."

Buehler earned the superlatives on Monday. He stomped a division rival before a crowd of 47,816 and then swore over the sound-system for those who stayed to cheer him. Operating with imprecise command on Monday, Buehler still showed his surfeit of talent across 6 2/3 innings of one-hit baseball. He induced a slew of soft contact and silenced a team that had won nine of its last 10 games to force Game 163. At the plate, he even delivered an RBI single.

His teammates supplied enough support. Bellinger and Max Muncy blunted the upper-90s heat from Colorado starter German Marquez with a pair of two-run homers. The only sour note arose in the ninth, when Jansen yielded a pair of solo home runs.

Manager Dave Roberts vowed to speak with Jansen before the NLDS. En route to the World Series in 2017, Jansen anchored the bullpen. To reach that summit once more, the team may rely on their rotation of Kershaw, Buehler, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill.

Buehler was an interloper in September 2017. He will be a vital cog in the journey this October. He looked electric at the start of Monday's game, as eight of his 13 pitches in the first inning were fastballs clocked at 98 mph or higher. He retired the first six batters he faced and worked around a hit batsman and a walk in the third.

An inning later, he issued a 10-pitch walk to outfielder David Dahl but otherwise kept the Rockies quiet. While Buehler rolled, general manager Farhan Zaidi allowed himself a moment of nostalgia. Buehler was the first player drafted by Zaidi and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman in Los Angeles. They chose Buehler out of Vanderbilt in June 2015 on the advice of scout Marty Lamb, scouting director Billy Gasparino and vice president of baseball operations Josh Byrnes.

The group knew Buehler needed an elbow reconstruction. They believed his talent outweighed the risk. Buehler underwent surgery two months after the Dodgers selected him with the 24th pick. He debuted on July 7, 2016, with the Class-A Great Lake Loons. Less than 14 months later, he reached the majors, and he established himself as a cornerstone in 2018.

"That's what you think about when you're building an organization," Zaidi said. "So I do think it was pretty special for him to get it done today."

The Dodgers caught a sizable break against Marquez in the fourth, when catcher Tony Wolters dropped a third strike and allowed Muncy to reach first base after striking out on a 98-mph fastball. Marquez fanned the next two batters he faced — effectively striking out the side — but still had to face Bellinger.

Bellinger detonated a 95-mph fastball for a two-run shot to break the scoreless deadlock. Another blast followed in the fifth, when Muncy hammered a 99-mph fastball into the left-field bleachers.

Buehler wavered, ever so slightly, in the sixth. Colorado outfielder Charlie Blackmon collected a one-out single to end Buehler's no-hit bid. Enrique Hernandez aided Buehler with a sliding stop on a groundout by second baseman DJ LeMahieu. Buehler ended the inning with a 90-mph changeup, which Dahl tapped into the dirt.

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"Big-Game Walker, you know. … He's not afraid of a big moment," Hernandez said.

Hernandez and Buehler teamed at the plate in the bottom of the sixth. Hernandez smashed a two-out double off reliever Harrison Musgrave. Buehler followed with his seventh hit of the year, a single that brought home Hernandez for a fifth run.

The day for Buehler ended midway through the seventh. He walked outfielder Carlos Gonzalez after a pair of deep flyouts. Roberts signaled for Pedro Baez. Buehler handed the baseball to his manager and shook Justin Turner's hand. The crowd chanted Buehler's name as he walked off the diamond. The rookie acknowledged them with a small wave.

"That's the dream," Buehler said. "That's what we play this game for, is those moments."

Baez picked up the final out of the seventh and the first of the eighth. Kenta Maeda finished the inning. Jansen teetered in the ninth, a foreboding harbinger for the future, but not enough to quash his team's achievement.

After the final out, the players gathered along the third base line. Roberts waved to the fans. Turner addressed the crowd, and so did Matt Kemp. Then they handed a live microphone to Buehler — an increasingly risky proposition.

"This is the loudest I've ever seen this place," Buehler told the crowd. "We need this the whole . . . playoffs."

Buehler covered his mouth after dropping his second expletive on television in a 17-day span. Inside the clubhouse, he cited youthful exuberance and Southern roots.

"I apologize to all the children, all the parents, all listening ears," Buehler said. "But I'm from Kentucky. We don't really hold back when we're a little excited."

Buehler offered no other apologies for his demeanor. As the party raged around him, a reporter teed him up: Did you know you were going to win today?

Buehler curled his upper lip into a grin.

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"I won't say yes," Buehler said. "But, yes."

The Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate winning their sixth consecutive NL West title.

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes

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