The message glared in green ink on a clubhouse whiteboard, a three-sentence mantra for the Dodgers as they seek to end a 28-season World Series drought and extinguish the flames of baseball’s defending champions.
“You get few opportunities in life to be great,” the message read inside the Dodgers clubhouse. “Be [expletive] great today! End the Cubs!”
It will take three more victories. On the first night of the National League Championship Series, the Dodgers overcame a somnolent start and the psychic blow of losing their All-Star shortstop to capture a 5-2 victory and a 1-0 series lead in front of a sold-out crowd of 54,289 at Dodger Stadium. Unbowed by the absence of Corey Seager, the lineup outlasted Cubs starter Jose Quintana and bullied the Cubs bullpen. They turned a foreboding afternoon into a blissful night.
They relied on a cast of characters both familiar and obscure. Yasiel Puig sparked the offense with an RBI double in the fifth and a solo home run in the seventh. Chris Taylor blasted the go-ahead shot in the sixth.
In the middle of everything was Charlie Culberson, a last-minute replacement for Seager. Culberson tied the score with a sacrifice fly in the fifth. He scored another run in the seventh on a controversial call at the plate, which elicited the ejection of Cubs manager Joe Maddon and the delight of the crowd at Dodger Stadium.
Clayton Kershaw withstood a sizable uppercut in the fourth inning, a two-run homer by Cubs outfielder Albert Almora, Jr., to complete five innings. He kept the Cubs scoreless otherwise, but manager Dave Roberts trusted his bullpen for the last 12 outs. The relievers retired all 12 batters they faced while Kenley Jansen closed the door with a four-out save. And the Dodgers rolled through their fourth consecutive victory this October, even without Seager.
“We can’t go out there and be like ‘[expletive], we don’t have Corey,” outfielder Enrique Hernandez said. “We were like, ‘This is what we’ve got.’”
Lingering beneath the surface was the specter of Seager’s sprained lower back, an injury the Dodgers downplayed after Seager hurt himself sliding into second base in the final first-round game against Arizona. By Friday, the team knew the pain-killing epidural injection Seager received would not have him ready for this series. In a stunning move on Saturday morning, the team left him off the 25-man roster and revealed he would not travel to Chicago next week.
“This sucks, to be honest,” Seager lamented. He looked forlorn when introduced to the crowd before the game.
The fear of back trouble had not filtered through the rest of the roster. As batting practice wound down, Puig thunked his bat across the water coolers as he left the dugout. Nearby was hitting coach Turner Ward, who jumped on Puig’s back for a piggyback ride. Ward bailed after a brief journey.
Kershaw had faced the Cubs only once since they mauled him in Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS to end the Dodgers’ season last October. Chicago smacked 11 hits against Kershaw on May 28, tagged him for three homers and booted him from the game in the fifth inning. Kershaw lasted longer on Saturday, but he dealt with pressure all evening.
Kershaw failed to locate his pitches in the top of the fourth, leaving a 3-1 fastball at the thighs of catcher Willson Contreras, who singled. Kershaw lost a pair of sliders in the dirt before a 3-2 slider to Almora crossed over the plate. Almora pulled it over the left-field fence. “They made me fight through at-bats, as I expected they would,” Kershaw said.
The homer awakened the Cubs’ dugout, enlivening a group of players who spent five hours on an airport tarmac in New Mexico on Friday after the emergency with Quintana’s wife grounded their flight. Almora pointed to his teammates and hollered as he rounded first base. Kershaw tucked his glove in his armpit and sighed.
Puig relished the spotlight. His postseason at-bats resemble performance art, a nightly display of dancing feet and wild gesticulations. He punctuated a ringing double off the center-field wall in fitting fashion: Puig flipped his bat and pounded his chest at second base.
“He loves the big stage,” Roberts said.
“It’s dumb sometimes,” first baseman Cody Bellinger said with a smile. “But he brings a lot of energy to this team.”
“I’m so proud of myself,” Puig said. “And I want to keep going and do the best I can for my teammates and for myself.”
The hit cut the deficit in half. Up came Culberson, who had spent the majority of the season in triple-A Oklahoma City and appeared in only 15 games for the Dodgers. But he still managed to fish for an 0-2 curveball and lift it into left for a sacrifice fly.
The tie did not last long. Maddon chose Hector Rondon to replace Quintana for the sixth. Rondon did not make the roster in the first round, but Maddon trusted him to face the top of the Dodgers order. Taylor belted the second pitch Rondon threw, a 97-mph fastball down the middle, over the fence in left-center field.
“People use the word ‘poise’ a lot,” Roberts said. “But he has poise.”
So does this remodeled version of Puig. He greeted Cubs left-handed reliever Mike Montgomery in similar fashion in the seventh. Puig launched a fastball deep to left. He did not flip his bat — perhaps he was fooled by left fielder Kyle Schwarber, who called for the baseball before reaching the warning track. Schwarber did not catch the ball.
A few batters later, after a double by Culberson and an infield single by Taylor, Schwarber secured a single by Justin Turner and fired to the plate. As he waited for the ball to arrive, Contreras stuck out his left leg as Culberson slid home. The obstruction prevented Culberson from touching the plate. Contreras tagged him out, but the Dodgers objected.
“After looking at the replay,” Culberson said, “it was obvious he was blocking the plate.”
The review cited the rule designed to protect catchers from collisions, and barred the blocking of the plate. Culberson was safe. Maddon was livid. He huffed at umpire Lance Barksdale until getting ejected.
After the game Maddon continued to carp about the decision, unwinding a soliloquy postgame that featured a diversion into Chicago’s municipal soda taxes. Here in Los Angeles, the Dodgers walked past their whiteboard, into the night, one victory closer toward their goal:
Ending the Cubs.