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Never a dull moment in Dodgers' fun (and often batty) run

Never a dull moment in Dodgers' fun (and often batty) run
Dodgers left fielder Andrew Toles drops a fly ball by Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo in the first inning of Game 6. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

What a long, strange journey it's been.

When the Dodgers first occupied a diamond this season, on a warm April afternoon in San Diego, 16 players appeared in the game.

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When the Dodgers last occupied a diamond, on a chilly Saturday night in Chicago, half of those players weren't even on the active roster.

When the Dodgers first appeared at Dodger Stadium, Vin Scully was working in the broadcast booth.

When the Dodgers played their final game at Dodger Stadium, Scully was a visitor in a suite.

When the season began, the ongoing Spectrum SportsNet LA  debacle prevented more than half of Los Angeles from watching the games on television for a third consecutive year.

When the season ended … well, OK, sadly, not everything with the Dodgers changed, it just seemed like it.

A.J. Ellis began the summer as the team's clubhouse leader, and ended it in a different clubhouse.

Yasiel Puig began as arguably the team's most popular player, and ended it on the bench.

What a wild, weird ride it was.

One of two biggest home runs of the season, a late-season grand slam, was hit by somebody named Andrew Toles. The other one, which clinched a division championship, was hit by somebody named Charlie Culberson.

The closest the Dodgers came to pitching a perfect game occurred when Rich Hill threw seven flawless innings against the Miami Marlins. At which point, he was pulled from the game.

The closest the Dodgers came to pitching a no-hitter occurred when Ross Stripling allowed the San Francisco Giants no hits for 7 1/3 innings. At which point, he was pulled from the game.

And, oh yeah, the biggest pitching moment for the great starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw occurred when he pitched out of the bullpen.

The 2016 Dodgers were energizing, aggravating, uplifting, distressing, rocking and reeling. Often all at the same time.

More than anything, during one of the most memorable seasons in recent memory, Hollywood's team was never boring.

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"Hey, we're not afraid to go for it around here,'' shouted Manager Dave Roberts as he ran onto Chicago's Wrigley Field on Saturday night, shortly before Game 6 of the National League Championship Series with the Chicago Cubs.

The Dodgers fell to the Cubs, 5-0, in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, failing to reach the World Series for the first time since 1988.

He was responding to a question about the wisdom of penciling Toles' name in the leadoff spot for an elimination game. Toles, who began the year in the lower minor leagues, had never hit in that position in the big leagues this year.

So what did he do? Toles hit the first pitch of the game for a single.

But a little later, in the bottom of the same inning, the inexperienced Toles took his eye off a ball hit toward left field and dropped it, leading to the Cubs' second run in a 5-0 clinching victory.

It was that kind of season, when every strange Dodgers move either resulted in euphoria or outrage or both. With baseball boss Andrew Friedman's philosophy in full gear in his second year, the Dodgers were less an old-fashioned ballclub and more of a churning machine with interchangeable parts.

For the most part, it worked, giving Dodgers fans hope that they might finally be on a path to consistently deep runs in the playoffs.

The Dodgers won their fourth consecutive National League West Division title, and they did it with Culberson's 10th-inning homer run on Scully's last Dodger Stadium appearance before retirement, resulting in the most memorable moment inside Chavez Ravine since Kirk Gibson's fist pumps.

One moment Culberson was winning the game, the next Scully was serenading fans with a recording of "Wind Beneath My Wings,'' and in the end the stadium crowd was left elated, exhausted and teary-eyed.

The Dodgers didn't break their 28-year World Series drought, but they did accomplish some other things that hadn't happened in that span.

They won a winner-take-all postseason elimination game for the first time since 1988, as they defeated the Washington Nationals in a memorable Game 5 in the division series.

They also held a lead in a National League Championship Series for the first time since 1988, as they led the Chicago Cubs two games to one.

In 28 years they had never seemed so close to reaching a World Series. But yet so far, as they were outscored 23-6 in the last three games with the Cubs, who fixed a piece of their own sordid postseason history with their first Series appearance in 71 years.

"This day is never fun, the ending of the season,'' Kershaw said quietly late Saturday night in the bowels of Wrigley Field as the celebration raged on the streets above him.

Nobody epitomized the paradoxes that ran through the Dodger season like Kershaw, who was again both the best pitcher on the planet and the most unusual pitcher in October.

During the middle of the season, Kershaw suffered a herniated disc in his back and went on the disabled list for more than two months. At the time, the Dodgers had a record of 41-36 and his loss was supposed to finish them.

But true to the odd Dodgers form, they were actually better without him, going 38-24 during his absence and passing the rival San Francisco Giants in the standings en route to a division title.

"Everyone realized we had no choice but to fight harder to win without him, so that's what we did,'' Ellis said at the time.

Once the playoffs began, Kershaw seemed to have shed previous October demons by leading the Dodgers to victory in his first four postseason appearances, including a dramatic two-outs save to close the winner-take-all Game 5 in the division series against the Nationals. He stood on the mound that night with his arms raised in triumph as if he had finally rewritten the legacies of both himself and his team.

But October wasn't finished with him yet. Barely a week later, Kershaw was on the mound with his hands on his knees, his eyes searching both the green grass and black sky for the unanswerable. He allowed the Cubs four earned runs in five innings in Saturday's final loss. For the third time in the last four losing postseasons, Kershaw was the starting pitcher on the day the Dodgers' dreams died.

"Obviously you are upset tonight, the end goal is to try to win a World Series, we know that,'' Kershaw said. "But … there's a lot of things we can look back on and be proud of.''

The Dodgers did accomplish a few pretty great things.

They found a manager in Roberts, who in his first season proved to be bold and tough and inspirational enough to be the favorite to be named manager of the year.

They found a shortstop. Corey Seager was not only the league's best rookie, but one of its strongest most valuable player candidates.

They found a center fielder. Joc Pederson answered many of the questions that plagued him at the end of his rookie year and should now be fixture up the middle.

They found impressive depth. They won despite placing a baseball-record 28 different players on the disabled list. They won using 15 different starting pitchers. They won with eight players making their major league debuts.

They found they could build a bullpen with no roles, no egos, and few stars. With the exception of Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers relievers never seemed to have set assignments, yet they became the best relief group in the game.

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They found they can live without Puig. The frustrating outfielder was finally demoted to the minor leagues for a month, and wound up being just another reserve outfielder who will probably be traded.

At least a couple of other familiar Dodgers faces may also disappear over the winter, as Jansen and third baseman Justin Turner will be free agents and probably sign on elsewhere as the Dodgers keep building for the future.

So the faces will change, and so, after 67 years, will the Dodgers' voice. The fans must wonder, will the ending?

Get more of Bill Plaschke's work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke

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