All summer long, as they stuck uniforms on dozens of anonymous players and ran them through endlessly changing lineups, they were engulfed by a persistent question.
Who exactly are the Dodgers?
On a wild Thursday night that agonizingly skidded into Friday morning before finishing with an indelible moment in Dodgers history, they finally offered a definitive answer.
They are bold kids who dance around the bases, hardened veterans who stare down pressure, and one absolute giant of an ace pitcher who will grab beyond his reach for greatness. They are big hits, brash pitches, a savvy manager, and a sense of drama that drops the jaw and steals the breath.
You know what they are? So far, they are 1988, the last time the Dodgers appeared in the World Series, and they are now four wins from appearing there again after a tingling 4-3 victory over the Washington Nationals in the fifth and deciding game of the National League division series.
“What the guys did in this club today was incredible … left it all out there,” said Adrian Gonzalez afterward in a champagne-soaked clubhouse.
All of it. All of them. Out there. It lasted 41/2 hours. It featured a Dodgers deficit, then a Dodgers lead, then a Dodgers tightrope walk across their recent sordid playoff history and back into their glorious past.
Yes, this night actually ended in 1988, with Clayton Kershaw doing an imitation of Orel Hershiser’s performance against the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series by pitching in relief just two days after throwing 110 pitches as a starter.
Before the game, Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts answered a question about Kershaw’s availability by saying, “Absolutely not,” but that absolutely changed when an exhausted closer Kenley Jansen — who began closing in the seventh inning — walked two batters with one out in the ninth after throwing a career-high 51 pitches.
Enter Kershaw, who offered to pitch and eventually walked in from the left-field bullpen at Nationals Park to the same incredulous gasps that accompanied Hershiser when he pitched on consecutive days in October of 1988. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Kershaw had not pitched as a closer in 10 years, since doing so for the Dodgers’ rookie league team in the Gulf Coast League, on a day when his catcher was — get this — a young Kenley Jansen.
These Dodgers don’t do anything conventionally, don’t follow any old baseball code, do not adhere to any unwritten rules except the one that says you do everything it takes to win.
On Thursday, it took Kershaw, and so here he was, and there went the Nationals’ final gasp. After throwing ball one to the hot Daniel Murphy — the still-filled stadium was rumbling with suspense — Kershaw retired him on a pop fly to second baseman Charlie Culberson and then struck out helpless kid Wilmer Difo to end the game.
Up went Kershaw’s arms. Into his embrace ran teammates in both excitement and disbelief. They stayed locked together for the longest time, a group celebration by guys from a clubhouse built with analytics and thriving on chemistry.
“This is an entire team effort, it was incredible, it was awesome,” said starter Rich Hill, who was pulled in the third inning, after which things really got tough for him.
“It was harder to watch than it was to play in it,” Hill said, and surely Dodgers fans across the Southland would agree.
And now, bring on the mighty Chicago Cubs, baseball’s best team this season by every statistical measure, waiting to duel the Dodgers in a best-of-seven National League Championship Series beginning Saturday in Chicago.
Everyone will favor the Cubs. Everyone will love the hard-luck Cubs who have not won a World Series in 108 years. But do not forget these Dodgers, and do not discount their relation to 1988.
“This is an unbelievable ballclub and what guys are willing to do, just sacrificing everything for the team,” said reliever Joe Blanton.
They fell behind two games to one in this series. They fell behind, 1-0, after six innings of this Game 5. They took a 4-1 lead but allowed the Nationals to creep back into a one-run game.
They endured all this, survived, held tight, then triumphed, using nearly every weapon at their disposal in all sort of different ways.
“We’ve all done everything we can to the absolute max that we have right now,” said Kershaw.
The winning pitcher Thursday was their 20-year-old starter Julio Urias, who entered the game in the fifth and threw two scoreless innings. He was set up by late-inning setup reliever Blanton, who actually showed up in the third.
“So exciting, butterflies and everything, it was fun to be a part of,” said Joc Pederson.
It was Pederson who started those butterflies swirling with a score-tying leadoff homer against Max Scherzer in the seventh. Four batters later, veteran backup catcher Carlos Ruiz grounded a ball into left field to drive in the go-ahead run. Two batters after that, Justin Turner’s fly ball off the center-field wall scored two more and the Dodgers seemed set.
But it wasn’t finished. With these Dodgers, it seems it’s never finished. Grant Dayton allowed a two-run, pinch-hit homer to Chris Heisey to start the seventh and hands were wringing for the final three innings.
“This is the grittiest bunch of guys I’ve ever been around,” said Turner. “It’s not always pretty but we find a way to get it done.”
The Dodgers are now going to the NLCS for the second time in four years, but only the fourth time in 28 years since that 1988 season and it’s never been real pretty.
The previous three times, they never won more than two games in the NLCS. Experts might not be picking them to win that many games this time.
Believe what you want, but these Dodgers have showed who they are, and it’s just like Vin Scully said 28 years ago. They are a team that has accomplished the improbable, and are now just eight wins from the impossible.