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Dodgers

Column: Dodgers’ first step toward fall glory is a beauty

Yasiel Puig

Dodgers center fielder Yasiel Puig celebrates with teammates in the clubhouse after defeating the Giants to win the NL West title.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

This being Hollywood, the Dodgers didn’t just attain their magic number, they knocked it out, set it ablaze, and shot it brilliantly into the sky.

This being Chavez Ravine, the largest crowds in baseball didn’t just sit under its glow, they danced and screamed and chanted in harmonious voices stretching from “MvvvP” to “Puiiig.”

Far more than simply a night of baseball, it was a wondrous confluence of team, town and division title.

It was Kershaw, it was Puig, it was perfect.

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The Dodgers clinched the heck out of their second consecutive National League West crown Wednesday with a 9-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium, winning it with eight strong innings from their best pitcher, a go-ahead home run from their most exciting player, and a quiet exit from their dreaded rivals who huddled under their black parkas in the late-night heat.

The official ending was at 10:17 p.m., after Gregor Blanco grounded out to a sliding second baseman Darwin Barney, setting off a celebration appropriately led by a sprinting Clayton Kershaw, who ran from the dugout to help form a bouncing scrum of players dancing to the tunes of “I Love L.A..”

After retiring briefly to the clubhouse, the players then returned to the field bearing bottles of champagne and thoughts of mischief, running the perimeter of the field spraying fans with the bubbly and water. While last season’s division title clinching involved a swim in the Arizona Diamondbacks pool, this year the Dodgers were thrilled to splash in their own rivulets of joy.

“It’s pretty fun, wasn’t it?” shouted Kershaw to the fans.

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“We’re going to celebrate tonight and we’ll be back here for round one.’'

They clinched it with the fire of Kershaw, who surely cemented his MVP award along with his third Cy Young award by doing a little bit of everything. Pitchers don’t field? Kershaw used a twirling blind back-hand catch of Tim Hudson’s grounder to save a run in the third inning. Pitchers don’t hit? Kershaw drove in the Dodgers’ first run by ripping a two-out, one-strike triple to the right-center field wall. When he left the mound in the eighth inning, the singular chant of “M-V-P” from the 53,387 fans might have been the loudest in the history of a city that is also home to Kobe Bryant.

They also clinched with emotion of Yasiel Puig, one day after he lost his cool and nearly caused a brawl. This time the mercurial 23-year-old directed his energy over the wall, breaking open a 1-all tie in the sixth inning with a two-strike homer into the right field pavilion. Puig stuck his left hand into the air as he rounded first base, as if officially starting the party. One inning later, Puig added to the buzz with a blistering throw from center field that nailed the Giants’ Gregor Blanco at third base after Blanco foolishly tried to take third on a single. When Puig ran to the dugout after the inning he was greeted by, yes, of course, the loudest “Puig” chants ever.

A season that began six month ago in Australia ended neither down nor under, the Dodgers headed toward the postseason with probably the second-best record in the National League and probably a division series matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals beginning Oct. 3.

Now comes the hard part, the biggest part, the only part that matters.

The Dodgers weren’t built for division titles, they were built for World Series championships, and that road starts here. They threw a nice party Wednesday, but there can be no hangovers, no satisfaction, no settling.

“We’re excited to get in, excited to win the division,” said Adrian Gonzalez, “But we want to get a couple of steps further, get to that World Series.’'

This team with the historically high $240-million payroll will only be judged by the battles of October, and recent history says it will be a difficult fight.

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This is eighth time the Dodgers have made the postseason in the 26 years since their last World Series appearance — and championship — in 1988. During their previous seven appearances, they have been the Boys of Stumble, failing to come any closer than two wins from returning to the World Series. During that time they have a combined postseason record of 14-25. The Dodgers don’t just crave postseason success, they need it.

The Dodgers ownership group needs this. Its off-season money grab from Time Warner Cable led to high subscriber prices, which led to most local pay-TV operators refusing to carry the new Dodgers channel, which meant folks in 70% of Los Angeles homes were unable to regularly watch televised Dodgers games until the final week of the season. Mark Walter and Stan Kasten essentially made the Dodgers disappear for six months, and now desperately need them to reappear and go deep in the postseason — in which all games are televised nationally — to regain credibility.

Ned Colletti, Dodgers general manager, needs this. In his nine years in the job, his team has been to the postseason five times, with four division titles, an admirable management record even by the standard of an organization once run by the likes of branch Rickey and Al Campanis. However, Colletti’s only World Series trip came when he was an assistant general manager with the Giants. This is also the first year that the usually active Colletti failed to add a key piece at the trade deadline because he refused to surrender any of the club’s top three prospects. With the injury to Hyun-Jin Ryu, that decision will be tested in October, with Kershaw possibly required to pitch on the dreaded three days’ rest or Dan Haren and his 4.03 earned-run average possibly forced into a larger role.

Finally, even Kershaw needs this. For all his greatness, he’s never appeared in a Fall Classic and actually contributed to classic falls. Kershaw has a career postseason record of 1-3 with a 4.23 ERA including allowing seven runs in four innings in last season’s deciding Game 6 of the NLCS.

“It’s the first step, we know that,’' said Kershaw late Wednesday.

But, man, what a doozy of a step.


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