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Chris Taylor saves day after Dodgers gamble on pitcher Julio Urias

The Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate in the clubhouse after defeating the Milwaukee Brewers 5-1 in Game 7 of the 2018 National League Championship Series.

The decibel level at Miller Park was peaking again, reinvigorated by the line drive Lorenzo Cain had cracked down the left-field line, in the fifth inning on Saturday night. Cain stood at second, representing the tying run for the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. The overwhelming favorite to win the National League MVP award next month was up next. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts decided it was time to make a change.

So out came Walker Buehler, his 24-year-old starter, and in came 22-year-old Julio Urias to pitch in the biggest spot of his young career a night after learning of his grandmother’s death. He was responsible for retiring Christian Yelich, who had already homered.

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After going up 0-2 on Yelich, Urias slung a 94-mph fastball up over the plate. Yelich cracked it to left-center field. Urias thought he was in trouble.

“I got scared,” Urias said in Spanish, “I’m not going to lie.”

The ball was sinking as left fielder Chris Taylor and center fielder Cody Bellinger converged. At the last second, as he approached the warning track, Taylor leaped with his glove in the air and caught the slicing ball as he tumbled to the ground. Bellinger jumped in delight, his arms up in celebration, as he zoomed by Taylor. Taylor got on his knees, turned toward the crowd and yelled “Let’s go!” The catch preserved a 2-1 Dodgers’ lead.

“I was trying to get to the gap and the ball kind of tailed back over my head so I had to reroute a little bit,” Taylor said. “And I’m glad I was just able to make the adjustment.”

A few minutes later, Yasiel Puig smashed a two-out, three-run home run to straightaway center field off Jeremy Jeffress, putting the game out of reach in the Dodgers’ 5-1 win.

“At that point, I thought the game was tied,” Roberts said. “But CT gets a great break on the ball, and really a game-saving play. Once the game is tied anything can happen. The momentum shifts. But that was certainly a signature play at the time.”

The play was symbolic of Taylor’s utility on the Dodgers. He is a multi-positional defensive talent, the kind of asset modern baseball clubs salivate over. He began the season after a breakout performance in the playoffs last October as the Dodgers’ starting center fielder. Then he became their starting shortstop when Corey Seager was lost for the season. Then Manny Machado was acquired and Taylor’s role became fluid. He bounced around from position to position, getting starts in center field, left field, shortstop and second base through the end of the regular season.

The versatility, paramount for a club that relies on maximizing matchups throughout the game with wholesale substitutions, has continued in the playoffs. Before this year, a player had never played four positions in a single playoff game. Taylor did it twice in the NLCS, in Games 2 and 5 — while adding value at the plate. After going 0 for 2 with two walks on Saturday, he finished eight for 22 with four walks in the NLCS.

‘The fact we can plug him in anywhere on the field, he can make a move defensively during the game and then make a game-saving play,” Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi said. “I think that was a real testament to his value and what he brings to this team on a day-in-day-out basis.”

But Taylor’s defensive display in the fifth inning was the highlight, one that saved Urias, Roberts, and the Dodgers from grave danger.

That Urias was on the mound at all this late in the season is a minor miracle. A can’t-miss prospect when he made his major league debut in 2016 at 19 years old, Urias tore the anterior capsule in his left shoulder early last season. He hadn’t pitched in a major league game since May 2017 when he debuted this season on Sept. 15. He appeared in only three games — all blowout wins for the Dodgers — during the regular season and didn’t pitch on less than six days’ rest.

He wasn’t put on the Dodgers’ NLDS roster, but he replaced Scott Alexander for the NLCS. He surrendered a home run to Jesus Aguilar in Game 1 before he tossed a scoreless inning and was credited with the win in Game 4. The performances gave Roberts the confidence to turn to him on Saturday.

It was a gamble. Yelich had hit nearly three times as many home runs (36) as the number of batters Urias faced (13) during the regular season. But Roberts was willing to take it based on Urias’s stuff and the left-on-left matchup — and it paid off with help from the invaluable multipurpose piece the Dodgers had planted in left field.

“That was the catch of the year,” Bellinger said. “I don’t know what would happen if he doesn’t make that catch. It would have been a tie game, who knows. That was an unbelievable catch. And it was really cool to see it firsthand, right there.”

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“I was trying to get to the gap and the ball kind of tailed back over my head so I had to reroute a little bit,” Taylor said. “And I’m glad I was just able to make the adjustment.”

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