Column: Electrifying walk-off wins are how these Dodgers roll
It has become as much a part of the Dodger Stadium scenery as the Elysian Hills.
It has worked its way into Dodger Stadium soundtrack as loudly as, “I Love L.A.’’
A loud crack. A roiling roar. Fans bouncing. Seats shaking.
A player rounds first base with his fist in the air. Another player dances or dives across home plate with his feet flying.
The dugout empties, the rest of the team stampedes to shallow left field to find the hero and hug him or tackle him or tear at his jersey.
There is Gatorade. There is baby powder. The cluttered diamond seems to rise toward the heavens, pushed there by fans who refuse to stop cheering, and there is a prolonged moment of brilliant blue joy.
Welcome to Chavez Ravine’s newest monument, The Walk Off.
“A jolt of energy,” Russell Martin said with a grin. “Game’s over.”
Rookie Dustin May pitched well in his second Dodgers start, and Russell Martin hit a walk-off single in a 2-1 win over the Cardinals.
It was Martin’s turn to deliver the charge Wednesday in a game that perfectly followed Chavez Ravine’s season-long script. The Dodgers trailed the St. Louis Cardinals by a run entering the ninth inning. They were down to their last out. They were down to their last strike. Then they grabbed the game by the heels and knocked it flat.
With runners on second and third against heat-bringing Carlos Martinez, the veteran catcher Martin chopped a bouncer up the middle that somehow found its way into the outfield to bring in Corey Seager, Will Smith, and the thunder.
Martin raised his right fist as he rounded first base, then realized Smith had not scored yet, so he brought it down until it was official. Then he stuck it back in the air. It’s probably there still.
”When you get two strikes and the guy’s throwing 100 mph . . . you can kind of up and just touch the ball and let destiny happen,” he said.
The final score was 2-1. The final result was never in doubt. These glorious last gasps indeed feel like destiny.
The Dodgers have a stunning 10 walk-off hits in 61 home games, equaling the season total of the historic 2017 squad. They are five walk-off hits behind the Los Angeles record, seven behind the major league record, and have 20 home games to reach those milestones.
There have been walk-offs by outfielders, infielders and catchers. The hits have been delivered by 36-year-olds and 23-year-olds. The heroes have included MVP favorites and backups.
“It seems like every day there’s somebody different you’re pouring Gatorade on,” manager Dave Roberts said.
The list includes Joc Pederson, Alex Verdugo, Will Smith, Matt Beaty, Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy, and now Martin. But at this point, would anybody else surprise you?
“You look at our lineup card, you have 11, 12 guys who want to be that guy,” said Roberts. “That’s a good thing. Our guys show that they embrace that.”
One team’s embrace is the other team’s shiver. The walk-offs have happened so frequently, as the Dodgers build momentum in the late innings, their opponent invariably tightens. The crowd noise swarms their dugout. The Dodgers’ plate patience rattles their nerves.
It happened again Wednesday, so much that even as Bellinger grounded out to begin the ninth, Roberts said he still expected to win.
“Yeah, yeah,” Roberts said. “It’s something that I think the other dugout feels as well. The crowd gets into it, we start feeling it, seems like everyone in our lineup has been in that spot and has come through, so once you have that history and that feeling, that’s tangible, we keep showing it’s real.”
Outfielder A.J. Pollock has had groin injuries in the past, so the Dodgers held him out of the lineup the last three days as a precautionary measure.
Sure enough, the Cardinals’ Andrew Miller started the rally by hitting Seager in the back. Then, against Martinez, pinch-hitter Smith fought off an 0-and-2 pitch to line a single to left. Both runners advanced on a wild pitch, allowing Martin to shorten his swing and execute a game-winning poke.
”It wasn’t like it was hit that hard,” Martin said. “Sometimes placement is all you need.”
If only the Dodgers hitters in the previous two World Series had figured that out, right? The attitude of Martin, one reflected in the smartest Dodgers hitting approach in years, is a reason these walk-offs will carry over into October.
Unlike past teams, these Dodgers realize they can win with more than just the long ball. They’re finally swinging for something other than the fences. Granted, six of the 10 walk-offs have been home runs, but the other four include a sacrifice fly, a walk, a double and a single. This doesn’t include the numerous good plate appearances that led to those winning runs.
“If you look at the late innings, the eighth and ninth innings . . . the ability to still stay in the strike zone and create contact, that translates to the postseason,” said Roberts.
What also will translate to the postseason is the Dodgers belief that they truly are never out of a game. They should have been out of this one. They were trailing in a sleepy afternoon contest in front of a seemingly half-filled stadium against a Cardinals team desperately hanging in a pennant race.
After Marcell Ozuna’s home run in the sixth, and after struggling Seager’s grounder stranded two runners in the bottom of the sixth, they could have packed it in. The Dodgers not only have the best record in baseball, but they are so far ahead in the National League West, they already have a magic number of 29. They could clinch this thing before football season. They could have taken the afternoon off. Many fans streamed toward the exits in the final innings while one poor soul was thwarted in two attempts to start the wave.
Except these Dodgers never leave early.
“When you’re down three runs with one strike to go and you don’t give away an at-bat, or you’re still hustling to try to make a play when you’re up nine runs in the ninth inning or down nine runs in the ninth inning, whatever it might be, it’s just a certain way we play,” said Roberts, adding, “That’s a mark of a great culture, great team. . . . every out, every game’s important.”
When those games reach the ninth inning, it has become natural for these Dodgers hitter to sweat over each of the final three outs. Out of that work, there occasionally appears greatness. It is not luck. It’s not coincidence. It’s what they’ve been missing. It’s now who they are.
“How we’ve been playing, it’s contagious,’’ Martin said. “We always feel like we’re going to win, even when we’re down, it always seems like we find the way.”
They found it again Wednesday, willing themselves to more delightful drama, walking off toward October.
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