Vin was waving to the crowd again. Newk was whipping one across the plate again.
The ageless Sandy Koufax was in the box seats, the new Sandy Koufax was on the mound, and the once-brilliant Dodgers were those Dodgers again.
Welcome back, summer. Welcome home, hardball.
On an early October night that appropriately felt like a warm July afternoon, the Dodgers began their long-awaited postseason Friday with a raucous, rollicking flashback.
Remember when everyone thought they could be the best team in baseball history? Before everyone thought they were the worst team in baseball history? Well, after a few hours of brilliant hitting, sturdy pitching and serious snake crushing, everyone can feel free to jump back on the belief wagon.
To be more precise, the Dodgers opened the first round of the playoffs by punching the Arizona Diamondbacks right between their wide eyes in a 9-5 victory in front of a full house at Dodger Stadium.
“It was fun,’’ said Cody Bellinger, and was it ever.
It was Justin Turner driving the ball into the left-field pavilion before some fans had even arrived at the left-field pavilion, his first-inning homer shaking the building, starting a five-RBI night, and giving the Dodgers a quick 3-0 lead.
“You’ve just got to try to find a way to keep the pressure on them,’’ Turner said.
It was Yasiel Puig licking his bat, which then gave the ball a serious lick, knocking it to the outfield fence for a double to make it 4-0 before Diamondbacks starter Taijuan Walker even recorded his first out.
“I hit a foul ball, I thought it was my bat, and the next pitch, hit a double, that’s good,’’ said a giddy Puig while valiantly conducting a national postgame news conference in English for the first time.
Then, of course, these being the playoffs, it was Clayton Kershaw giving everyone the willies by surrendering four solo home runs, the final two in the seventh to close a 7-2 lead to 7-4, and. yes, you remembered correctly. Kershaw’s seventh-inning playoff ERA as a starter is now 25.50.
“There are a lot of factors,’’ said Kershaw. “No excuses.’’
But in the end, no excuses were necessary, the Dodgers piling on a couple of runs late and the bullpen cleaning it up and, oh yeah, Puig waggig his tongue one more time after legging out a triple
“I don’t know why. Maybe I thought there was maybe ice cream in front of me,” said Puig.
The whole night was maybe ice cream for Dodger fans, who danced and waved blue towels and partied like it was the middle of July.
All this, and Dodger fans throughout Los Angeles could actually watch them on television, the national networks taking over during the postseason for the mostly blacked-out SportsNet LA.
For those first-time viewers, that big guy making nifty plays at first base is Bellinger, that bearded guy scoring two runs is Chris Taylor, and this is really how the team played for most of the summer.
It’s only the first game of a best-of-five National League division series, but in the Dodgers’ last 15 postseason series, the outcome of the first game mirrored the outcome of the series.
“The first game’s big,’’ said Turner.
It was only one night, but goodness, what a night, one that even featured Hollywood stars reading lines from their movies. When the video board showed Tom Hanks, he wagged his finger at the crowd and mouthed the words, “No crying in baseball.’’
That is usually good advice for Dodger fans in October, as the team has made 10 postseason appearances without a World Series championship since 1988, the longest such drought in history. But for once, those words were not needed, as everything the Dodgers practiced was just as Turner preached to his team around the pitching mound after Thursday’s pre-series workout.
“I basically just said this is what we’ve been waiting for all year,’’ said Turner. “In the playoffs your numbers, our numbers individually, don’t matter. It’s about doing whatever it takes to win a ballgame.’’.
The night began when Don Newcombe, the Dodgers’ 91-year-old legend who practiced throwing a sponge ball for two weeks in anticipation of this moment, delivered a perfect first pitch from in front of home plate to his protégé Kenley Jansen.
The charm continued in the middle innings when the video board showed Vin Scully sitting in the stands. He immediately stopped his conversation and stood and waved to a roaring crowd that has missed him terribly.
The Dodger fans have also missed this kind of baseball, the sort which pushed the team to a 52-9 stretch at one point during a regular season in which they were once on a pace to record the most wins in major league history. Memories were quickly dimmed when, late in the season this same team went 1-16, a stat that should scare because no club since 1900 has gone into such a nose-dive and emerged as a World Series champion.
But these these were the good Dodgers, right from the start, beginning a first inning that featured the same sort of offense that led them on this summer’s amazing streak.
Every Dodgers starter but two had at least one hit, including Kershaw. The Dodgers hitters wore down Walker for 48 pitches in just the first inning, and then Zack Godley for 100 pitches in five innings of relief.
It was trademark 2017 Dodgers excellence. Grinding plate appearances, unselfish swings, working the pitcher, moving the line, wearing out arms and whittling away at resolve.
“If you make an out, whatever happens, it doesn’t matter,’’ said Turner. “It’s about finding a way to pick up the next guy, the next guy, find a way to get it done. Also just to embrace and be in the moment and enjoy it.’’
Kershaw won a home playoff game for the first time in his career – talk about amazing stats – but it wasn’t all enjoyment, as he walked three batters and gave up the four homers and struggled to find pitches other than his fastball. He wound up allowing the four runs in 6 1/3 innings and, well, since that he missed time with a back injury in the late summer, should the Dodgers worry?
“I think that he’s strong, I think he’s healthy, and ever since he’s come back, he’s continuing to get better,’’ said Manager Dave Roberts.
While the Dodgers will send out another intense pitcher in Rich Hill for Saturday’s Game 2, the Diamondbacks will rebound with an equally intense guy who might not be at full strength.
Robbie Ray has stifled the Dodgers in his five starts against them this year with a 3-0 record, 2.27 ERA, 53 strikeouts and just 12 walks. But he is essentially pitching on short rest, as he threw 34 pitches out of the bullpen in Wednesday’s wild-card victory over Colorado.
“We made it here for a reason,’’ said Ray. “We’re not just limping our way in.’’
The Dodgers — in licking their bats and wagging their tongues and hitting balls that fell everywhere — aren’t limping either, even if they did throw the crowd a bit of a scare.
“No lead is safe in playoffs, no team going to roll over and quit,’’ said Turner. “It’s going to be an emotional ride of ups and downs. If we limit our downs and ride our highs as much as possible, we’ve got a chance.’’
On a redemptive Friday night, the city surely fell back in love with that chance.
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