As people streamed out of the visiting manager’s office at AT&T Park, the teenage son of the Dodgers manager spoke up.
“Hey dad,” Cole Roberts said, “two Game 163s tomorrow … ”
“Is that right?” said Dave Roberts, checking his phone and collecting his bearings after the Dodgers’ 15-0 demolition of the San Francisco Giants on Sunday set the stage for an unprecedented Monday.
For the first time, two divisions will be decided in an extracurricular tiebreaker. The Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers will vie for the National League Central title, and the Dodgers will host the Colorado Rockies at 1 p.m. with a chance to collect their sixth consecutive NL West title.
All four teams are guaranteed entry into the playoffs. The losers will play Tuesday in a wild-card game. With a victory Monday, the Dodgers will play the Atlanta Braves, champions of the NL East, in a division series. Despite the promise of a game beyond Monday, the Dodgers will treat it with urgency, choosing to start 24-year-old rookie Walker Buehler in a duel with 23-year-old German Marquez.
“This is a playoff game tomorrow,” outfielder Matt Kemp said. “It’s a must-win for us. We really want the division.”
The trappings of a title extend beyond hosting Game 1 against the Braves on Thursday. The Dodgers will not have a reliable starting pitcher lined up for Tuesday, after setting up their rotation expecting to clinch the West on this final trip. They fell behind Colorado last week but caught up on the penultimate day of the season.
The Dodgers celebrated Saturday when they secured a spot in the playoffs. A day later, they experienced hardly any stress. They scored 14 runs before they made 15 outs. Rich Hill (11-5) gave up two hits in seven innings. The only annoyance was happening in Denver, where the Rockies were hammering the Washington Nationals to keep the race tied and set up the first tiebreaker at Dodger Stadium since the Houston Astros used the extra game to win the West in 1980.
“Obviously, it’s not do or die,” Roberts said. “But it’s a must-win game. To win the game and to get a couple days off and to host a division series, that’s very important.”
The Dodgers received a surprise late Saturday when they learned that Washington would not start ace Max Scherzer in the finale in Colorado. The team had boasted Scherzer would pitch if the game had playoff implications, only to shut him down instead. The Dodgers did not receive a courtesy call from the Nationals, Roberts said.
If Scherzer had started, the Dodgers may have used Buehler. Instead they went with Hill, who left the ballpark Saturday planning to pitch Sunday. He went to bed around 10:30 p.m. and fell asleep before team officials decided who would start. Hill woke up around 7:45 a.m., having missed a text the night before.
“I tapped my wife and said, ‘I’m starting today,’ ” Hill said.
Around 10 a.m. on Sunday, Hill fixed himself a plate of bacon and eggs in the clubhouse. He brewed a cup of coffee and walked to his locker. The room betrayed only a few signs of the previous day’s revelry. The clubhouse staff at AT&T Park did heroic work cleaning up the mess. They lit scented candles in strategic locations around the room. Three floor fans concentrated on the carpet.
One of the fans whirred near couches in the center of the clubhouse, where a group of Dodgers hunkered down to watch football and trade barbs about their various fantasy teams. Clad in a hoodie, Cody Bellinger tracked down clubhouse manager Alex Torres.
“What happens if we turn off the fan?” Bellinger said. “Is it going to stink? I’m so cold.”
As Torres went to rectify the situation, Bellinger made a vow.
“If it stinks,” he said, “we’ll turn it back on.”
The offense remained hot after finishing Saturday with four runs in the ninth inning. The team staked Hill a two-run lead in the first inning against Andrew Suarez (7-13). After a leadoff walk by Chris Taylor, Justin Turner redirected a curveball into the right-field corner for a run-scoring double. David Freese followed with a run-scoring single.
Hill retired the first six batters he faced. His teammates rewarded him by busting the game open in the third inning. The seven-run storm sank Suarez and reliever Hunter Strickland. Suarez opened the door by plunking Turner. Freese doubled off the right-field bricks. Manny Machado’s single to center field drove in Turner.
“It was a lot of linked up, quality at-bats,” Turner said. “That’s why you see the results where they were.”
The Dodgers were in the midst of a seven-batter stretch without making an out. Enrique Hernandez had a run-scoring single. Kemp grounded a two-run double down the third base line. Yasmani Grandal squeezed an infield single into dirt vacated by an infield shift. A wild pitch by Strickland allowed Kemp to score with Brian Dozier at the plate.
By the time Dozier batted in the third inning, Strickland was on the mound. Strickland challenged Dozier with fastballs and sliders. The ninth pitch of the at-bat was a 95-mph fastball. Dozier hammered it over the left-field fence to cap the flurry.
The fourth inning furthered the onslaught. The Dodgers chewed up reliever Chris Stratton. Freese walked and Machado singled. Hernandez delivered his second run-scoring single. Kemp hit a run-scoring double off the bricks. A sacrifice fly by Dozier completed the three-run rally.
Roberts started to sit the regulars in the fifth inning. The inning displayed the depth of the bench. Batting in place of Turner, Max Muncy hit his 34th home run. He finished the year leading the team in home runs and slugging.
Up 15 runs, the Dodgers could exhale. They understood the task awaiting them Monday at home, less than 24 hours after the regular season was supposed to end.
This team snoozed through the first seven weeks of the season and nearly capsized in August. It gave away the lead last week. It could not win the division in 162 games.
So it will take 163.