The 2018 Dodgers have spent nearly seven months tormenting themselves and their fans, operating as if a pennant were their birthright. They tantalized with their talent and tortured with their results. They lost games when they shouldn't have, but won every game that needed to be won. They required 163 games to win the division. If Major League Baseball would have allowed it, the Dodgers would have taken the National League Championship Series to Game 8.
The route back to the World Series may have been circuitous, a journey of fits and starts and lineup alterations, but the destination remains as sweet. Because for the second season in a row, the Dodgers will reign as champions of the NL, downing the Milwaukee Brewers with a 5-1 victory in Game 7 at Miller Park on Saturday night. The Dodgers handled this series as they did the season: They played themselves into a corner, and then muscled their way out.
"We haven't had 'easy' in the playbook all year," said Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations. "So for it to come down this way shouldn't be surprising. Ultimately, at the end of the day, the talent in this room won out."
The emotion and elation of the trek manifested in the persona of Yasiel Puig as he rounded the bases in the sixth inning. He had just launched a three-run home run to break the tension and muffle the crowd. Upon contact, Puig flipped his bat. As he rounded first base, he turned to his dugout and chopped at his crotch. At third base, he thumped his chest. After touching the plate, certifying his blast in Dodgers history, he wagged his tongue and accepted the adulation of his teammates.
The mob included all the stars from Saturday: Cody Bellinger, theseries most valuable player, who provided a 2-1 lead with a second-inning home run. Walker Buehler, who struck out seven batters and protected the advantage bequeathed to him. Chris Taylor, who stole a score-tying, extra-base hit from All-Star Christian Yelich in the fifth inning. The rest of the contributors resided among the relievers, like Julio Urias, who replaced Buehler in the fifth. Clayton Kershaw loped in from the bullpen to finish the ninth.
In the midst of the sixth-inning throng, manager Dave Roberts left the top step of the dugout to salute Puig. The manager has emerged as the avatar for the Dodgers, the source of frustration for fans who have not embraced the organizational philosophy emphasizing depth, versatility and sacrifice. The culture survived the frights of the regular season. The culture has carried the Dodgers through October.
"Every single person in this room has their fingerprints on this season," Roberts said in the clubhouse as he gathered the players and Urias clutched the NL championship trophy. "Every single one of you men. We haven't accomplished our goal yet. Four more wins."
This group has become the first Dodgers team since the 1977 and 1978 editions to win consecutive pennants. The team aims to secure its first World Series championship since 1988 when the October Classic begins against Boston on Tuesday at Fenway Park. They enter the series in unfamiliar, but perhaps welcome territory. Against the 108-win Red Sox, who steamrolled the World Series defending champion Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series, the Dodgers will be considered the underdogs.
"Two storied franchises going head to head," Roberts said. "It's going to be a great series."
As the players drenched each other with beer and champagne, during a quiet moment in the visiting manager's office, Roberts waited for the adrenaline buzz to fade. The magnitude of the team's achievement was starting to filter through his mind.
"There were so many potential breaking points this season, where we could have went a different direction," Roberts said. "We weathered a lot. For these guys to believe in me, the front office, each other most importantly, to really stay the course, it's a credit to them."
One day in September, Kenley Jansen fell into conversation with fellow reliever Ryan Madson, a veteran of championship teams in Philadelphia and Kansas City. Jansen mentioned how easy it was to find motivation for crucial series against contenders like Arizona and Colorado later in the season, when the division was at stake, and how difficult it was to do likewise earlier in the year.
"Welcome to the hangover," Madson told Jansen.
The cloud of the loss to Houston to end 2017 still hovered over the Dodgers as 2018 began. When general manager Farhan Zaidi visited the Dodger Stadium weight room in the offseason, his route carried him past a pallet of champagne, meant to be sprayed after Game 7, left to ferment when the team lost. Roberts sought advice from owner Peter Guber, who also owns a portion of the Golden State Warriors, for how coach Steve Kerr revived the team after losing the NBA Finals in 2016.
The players twisted between reliving the frenzy of the World Series and placing it in their rearview mirror. The regular season started with a slump. Turner sat out 40 games because of a broken wrist. Shortstop Corey Seager underwent season-ending elbow surgery. Jansen struggled to recapture his fastball velocity.
"We all took those punches, heavy punches," Jansen said. "People criticizing us. Being 10 games under .500."
The Dodgers were 16-26 on May 16. Even after taking flight in the summer, the team still trailed in the division by 41/2 games Aug. 22. After tying Colorado on the final weekend of the season, Buehler trounced the Rockies in the Oct. 1 tiebreaker at Dodger Stadium.
The playoffs have featured four games against Atlanta, and then seven with Milwaukee. The Brewers rode their bullpen into the postseason, and they subjected their relievers to heavy usage against the Dodgers. The moments to strike were early, when their starters were still in the game.
Yet, the Brewers landed the first blow Saturday. It came off the bat of Yelich. Buehler pumped a 98-mph fastball down the middle. Yelich drilled the ball into the right-center field gap. Puig leapt at the wall, with his glove scraping the surface as the ball disappeared from sight.
Bellinger answered in the second inning. He was preceded by Manny Machado, who had been serenaded with jeers the night before. The crowd repeated the treatment as Machado arrived for Game 7. Machado quieted the noise by dropping a bunt single on a 3-and-2 slider from starter Jhoulys Chacin. The hit prompted a response from Miller Park.
"You still suck!" the fans chanted. "You still suck!"
Bellinger wiped out that sentiment. He destroyed a 90-mph fastball from Chacin. The ball landed in the second deck of right field and gave the Dodgers a lead. Buehler relied on his fastball to keep the advantage safe.
Buehler could not make it through the fifth inning. He gave up a two-out double to outfielder Lorenzo Cain. Roberts made his move. He went with Urias, who had appeared in only thee regular-season games, against Yelich, the NL batting champion. Yelich smashed a 94-mph fastball into the left-center field gap.
Sprinting toward the warning track was Taylor. He had started the game at second base, then shifted into left field when Enrique Hernandez batted for Joc Pederson. Taylor weaved a path beneath the baseball's flight and flung his glove in the air. He snatched the ball out of the sky and skidded across the dirt, the third out in his possession.
"That was the catch of the year," Bellinger said. "I don't know what would have happened if he doesn't make that catch."
The offense awoke after Taylor's save. The sixth inning began with singles from Max Muncy and Turner. Reliever Jeremy Jeffress collected two outs before Puig arrived. Jeffress tempted Puig with a curveball. Puig laced it over the center field wall.
As Puig rounded the bases, a season's worth of joy poured out of the Dodgers. After 163 regular-season games, four with Atlanta and seven with Milwaukee, the team was headed back to where it felt it belonged from the beginning.
The World Series.
"We," Turner said, "have got to finish the job this time."