Column: Dodgers’ stressful season needed extra innings, but they’re back where they were supposed to be
After all this, a field filled with bear hugs, faces buried in shoulders, calloused fingers pointing to the sky.
After six months of insults and injuries, a crown.
“Here we are again,’’ Kenley Jansen said with a champagne-stained grin.
Two days after clinching a playoff spot, the Dodgers completed their turbulent regular season Monday by grabbing a bigger prize in a 5-2 victory over the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium that gave them their sixth consecutive National League West division title.
After all this, another perfect spot for a second consecutive World Series run.
The Dodgers will open the best-of-five division series Thursday in the best possible place against a seemingly overmatched, young opponent with their best rested pitcher.
Dodger Stadium. Atlanta Braves. Clayton Kershaw.
How did this happen?
How does a team that spent much of the summer battling through injuries and inconsistency wind up donning division championship T-shirts and caps and rolling around on the infield grass, and triumphantly addressing a screaming crowd on the first day of October after the 163rd game of a 162-game season?
Shortly after Jansen whiffed Gerardo Parra through the late afternoon shadows to end this game, some teammates grabbed a microphone to speak to the thousands of remaining sweat-soaked fans.
First up, Justin Turner, who shouted, “That’s six in a row, baby! … we’re just getting started!’’
Next up, Matt Kemp, who hollered, “Let’s bring it, baby … let’s keep this ride going, baby!’’
Finally, here came Walker Buehler, the baby-faced, 24-year-old pitching hero who held the powerful Rockies to one hit before leaving in the seventh inning.
The fans chanted, “Bueh-ler!” Buehler chanted back, sort of, announcing with an expletive, “This is the loudest I’ve ever seen this place. We need this the whole ... playoffs! Sorry kids.’’
The crowd laughed. His language was forgiven. All these occasionally fallible Dodgers earned a measure of forgiveness for their summer-long imperfections on a day that resembled a glorious ride through Dodgers history.
“We’ve been here six times now, and we wanted this one bad,’’ Jansen said.
Orel Hershiser, the pitching hero of the 1988 World Series, threw out the first pitch while organist Dieter Ruehle played Hershiser’s trademark song “Master of the House.”
Buehler, whose wiry build reminds one of Hershiser, then took the mound to the Avenged Sevenfold song “Hail to the King.”
The game was dominated by kids and newcomers, with sophomore Cody Bellinger hitting a soaring, two-run homer into the right-field pavilion, then Max Muncy hitting another two-run homer into the other pavilion.
But after Jansen again scared everyone out of their wits by allowing two ninth-inning Rockies home runs, the afternoon ended in glorious tradition. The players greeted 92-year-old Don Newcombe as they danced into their clubhouse, then helped 91-year-old Tom Lasorda out of his motorized cart so they could douse him in champagne.
”Yes, this team can definitely win the World Series,’’ Lasorda said from beneath goggles and a soaking cap. “They have a better chance than last year.’’
In their quest for first World Series championship in 30 years, they are certainly more battle-tested than last season, when they advanced to the seventh game of the Series before losing to the Houston Astros.
Injuries deprived them of star shortstop Corey Seager for all but the first month of the season, while sidelining clubhouse leader Turner more than a quarter of the season.
Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy (13) hits a two-run home run off Colorado Rockies starting pitcher German Marquez (48) in the fifth inning in a NL West tiebreaker game.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers reliever Kenta Maeda (18) celebrates after the third out is recorded in the eighth inning against the Colorado Rockies on Oct. 1.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger hits a two-run homer against the Rockies in the fourth inning at Dodger Stadium on Oct. 1.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) tips his hat to the crowd while coming off the field after the Dodgers defeated the Colorado Rockies 5-2.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts (30) celebrates after the Dodgers beat the Colorado Rockies 5-2 to win the NL West title.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy (13) celebrates with teammates in the dugout after hitting a two-run homer in the fifth inning on Oct. 1.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers starting pitcher Walker Buehler (21) delivers a pitch against the Colorado Rockies in an NL West tiebreaker game played at Dodger Stadium.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy (13) celebrates with outfielder Joc Pederson (31) after hitting a two-run home run off Colorado Rockies starting pitcher German Marquez.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger (35) celebrates with Yasiel Puig (66) after hitting a two-run home run in the fourth inning on Oct. 1(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger (35) celebrates after hitting a two-run home run in the NL West tiebreaker.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Rockies left fielder David Dahl (26) is caught stealing. He is tagged out by Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado (8) in the fourth inning on Oct. 1.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig celebrates after defeating the Rockies to win the NL West division at Dodger Stadium on Oct. 1.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw plays with his children after his team defeated the Rockies to win the NL West division at Dodger Stadium.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run in the NL West tiebreaker game.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado, left, hugs Chris Taylor as Enrique Hernandez and Joc Pederson embrace after defeating the Rockies to win the NL West at Dodger Stadium.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers base runner Kiki Hernandez slides safely ahead of the throw to score a run against the Rockies in the sixth inning at Dodger Stadium.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler gets a standing ovation as he comes out of the game in the 7th inning against the Rockies at Dodger Stadium Monday.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler celebrates the last out of the 6th inning against the Rockies at Dodger Stadium Monday.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodger players and coaches celebrate in the locker room after defeating the Rockies and winning the National League Western Division at Dodger Stadium Monday.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers Joc Pederson, second from left, celebrates with teamates after defeating the Rockies to win the National League West Division at Dodger Stadium Monday.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
They had the worst start in franchise history at 16-26. At one point their bullpen blew four consecutive games in the opponents’ final at-bat for the first time in franchise history.
Entering this weekend, they needed to win every last game to have a chance at taking the championship from Colorado. And so they did, outscoring the San Francisco Giants and Rockies by a combined 33-9 in their final four games to finish it.
Through it all, one notable person never stopped believing.
On April 29, when they were 12-14 and seven games out of first place, Manager Dave Roberts said, “When it’s all said and done, the Dodgers will be at the top of the division.”
When asked about that prediction Monday, Roberts not only remembered his words, but also the exact date he said them.
“April 29!’’ he exclaimed. “What I see now is the same thing I saw back then. A group of players, very talented, that care about one another. All the adversity … I knew we could overcome and get to the other side.’’
Roberts said his players also remembered the date, noting, “Those guys in there reminded me that on April 29 when I declared that, they never wavered, ever.’’
The result is a division championship streak unmatched in baseball since the New York Yankees won nine consecutive American League East titles from 1998-2006.
The extension of the streak also led to a new attendance record at Dodger Stadium, Monday’s extra game total of 47,816 pushing the season total to 3,857,500.
That number matters. Roberts even momentarily separated from his team during the on-field celebration to walk out toward the pavilion and tip his cap to the fans there.
“These guys show up 3 million strong every single year; those bleacher bums come out and spend their hard-earned money to support us,’’ he said. “For me to take a special moment to acknowledge the people out there, it’s only fitting.”
But more than anything, the streak is representative of the culture started by Ned Colletti and continued in the last four years under the regime of Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi.
The Dodgers have an unmatched combination of money, brains and savvy, and have used that to build a perennially contending team unmatched in this town since the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant Lakers nearly 20 years ago.
“It wasn’t the most even path to get there, definitely some ups and down, but at end of the day, the talent of this group won out, their work ethic, how motivated they are to win a title,’’ Friedman said.
A World Series title is their next step, the one they need to complete the legacy of an era, the last step.
The road there begins again Thursday, Dodger Stadium, Atlanta Braves, Clayton Kershaw, where nobody thought it would start, yet exactly where it’s supposed to be.
Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke
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