It wasn’t pretty, and yet it was beautiful, the Dodgers’ painstaking summer journey winding into a champagne-soaked mob of blue amid a stadium of Giants.
It wasn’t as they planned, but it is exactly what they wanted, a chance at October redemption earned during a cool autumn dance on the backs of an ancient rival.
The playoffs are here, and the Dodgers — gasp, sigh, scream — are in them.
At 4:39 p.m. here Saturday, with hordes of Dodger fans standing and chanting above the sullen residents of AT&T Park, the San Francisco Giants’ Alen Hanson swung through a Kenley Jansen fastball and the wild ride of 2018 had finally reached a milestone.
For a sixth consecutive season, the Dodgers have qualified for baseball’s postseason, their 10-6 victory over the Giants clinching at least a spot in next week’s wild-card game.
“It feels good, real good, hell, yeah!’’ shouted outfielder Matt Kemp.
It felt good, but also a little strange, because the Dodgers’ regular season mission isn’t yet complete. The victory pulled them into a tie with the losing Colorado Rockies for first place in the West Division, giving the Dodgers a chance to win their sixth consecutive National League West crown on Sunday’s final day of the season.
The acknowledgment of this one last goal is why the Dodgers’ on-field celebration was subdued, containing only the usual handshakes and back slaps of a normal victory.
But the appreciation of the playoff berth quickly surfaced after the players had disappeared into a plastic-wrapped clubhouse, where they sprayed one another with Budweiser and Beau Joie and reveled in relief.
“Getting in is getting in,’’ said pitcher Rich Hill. “There’s a lot of work to be done, but when you get a chance to celebrate in this game, you have to take it.’’
If the Dodgers remain as the wild-card team, they will have to begin the playoffs with a one-game, winner-take-all duel on the road against either the Milwaukee Brewers or Chicago Cubs. In the six previous seasons of baseball’s wild-card game, only one of the 12 wild-card winners has survived to win the World Series, and only two have even advanced to the Series.
If they win the division, however, they will enter into a much saner best-of-five series against the Atlanta Braves. At the same time the Dodgers will be finishing up here with the Giants on Sunday, the Rockies will be hosting the Washington Nationals with that easier playoff road on the line.
So there is one game left and the stakes are still high. But given the struggles of this injury-plagued and underachieving team this season, Saturday’s victory was as hugely dramatic as the gulls swooping overhead.
“You look at how guys have come together and stayed together in some tough times and found our way on the other side,’’ said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts afterward, sitting soaked in front of a single beer in his office. “I think there’s power in that.’’
There was certainly power in Saturday’s eventual game-winning play. After spending six months seemingly banging their heads against a brick wall, the Dodgers finally knocked an important baseball off one.
With two outs and two strikes in the eighth inning of a 5-5 tie, Manny Machado scorched a line drive off the Levi’s Landing wall in right field, good for a triple that scored Chris Taylor from second base to give the Dodgers a lead they never lost.
When he reached third base, Machado clapped his hands five times in both celebration and relief as his teammates jumped up and down in the dugout. Since being acquired at the end of July, Machado has been mostly disappointing, a slugger who was still in search of a signature hit as a Dodger. Maybe this was finally it.
“It’s nothing special, I did my job, it’s something I’ve always been capable of,’’ said Machado. “I was brought over here to be in those situations.”
He’s underselling it. It was a big enough hit to overcome an oh-no-here-we-go-again start from Clayton Kershaw, whose trademark October nightmares arrived a couple of days early as he allowed five runs in five innings.
“For those guys to pick me up like they did today … it’s just really special to be a part of,’’ said a thankful Kershaw.
“Special” is certainly one word for this deeply talented team, one which should have easily won its division by now. “Maddening” is another word.
“I think we’re the best team … even when we were 16-26, I thought we’d be right here popping champagne,’’ Roberts said.
Last year they won a league-best 104 games and cruised to the World Series, where they battled the Houston Astros before falling nine innings short of winning their first championship since 1988.
This year was far different, far more difficult, the team beset by many more flaws while encountering far greater obstacles.
They began the season with a World Series hangover, injuries piling up everywhere, and, of course, that 16-26 record.
They lost star shortstop Corey Seager after the first month with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. They lost batting and clubhouse leader Justin Turner for the first 40 games with a broken wrist.
Then, after they had seemingly found their stride around midseason, closer Jansen was sidelined with a heart ailment, and the suspect remainder of the bullpen imploded.
At one point, they blew seven consecutive late-inning situations, including losing four consecutive games in an opponent’s’ final at-bat for the first time in franchise history.
This is a team that went 1-6 against the Cincinnati Reds and 2-4 against the Miami Marlins, teams with two of the three worst records in the National League. This is a team that should have been better than even its current 90 wins.
But as of Saturday afternoon, this is a playoff team. And judging from all the postgame whooping and spraying, that counts for something.
”It was a testing season for sure, it was never easy,’’ said catcher Austin Barnes. “I think adversity always makes someone stronger. It’s a great testament.’’
Depending on what happens in Sunday’s final showdown, that testament could grow even stronger. When the Dodgers finished partying late Saturday afternoon, clubhouse attendants picked through the bottles of champagne and beer.