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The Best Team in Baseball Is World Series Bound

The Dodgers’ 29-year Fall Classic appearance drought is over thanks to an efficient outing from Clayton Kershaw and star turns from a trio of ascendant role players

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Prepare to see a lot of Kirk Gibson limping, Tommy Lasorda waddling, and Orel Hershiser grinning over the next two weeks. Get ready to hear a host of old Vin Scully calls. For the first time since 1988, the Dodgers are pennant winners, and for the first time since Hershiser finished Game 5 to win that year’s World Series, the Dodgers will play for MLB’s greatest prize.

The celebration began early, as the Dodgers used a walk-off home run and shutdown pitching to win the first three games of their NLCS matchup with the defending-champion Cubs, then took a 9-0 lead by the fourth inning of the decisive Game 5. Kike Hernández smashed three homers on Thursday, including a grand slam, and Clayton Kershaw and three relievers combined to allow just four hits in the 11-1 win. The Dodgers are the best team in baseball, and they reach the World Series having lost just once in eight games this postseason.

Unlike in 1988—the year of the impossible, per Scully’s famous call—the Dodgers’ run to the 2017 NL trophy feels preordained. L.A. won the most games in the majors (104), and outside of an inconceivable September slump, it looked like a historically great team. Preseason projections pegged L.A. as better than the defending champions, and as the Dodgers clobbered the Cubs both on Thursday and throughout the pennant series, that assessment proved accurate for a team that faced little drama in its romp through the NL playoffs.

Not that on-paper favoritism had helped the Dodgers at all in the 28 years between World Series appearances. Between 1988 and this season, L.A. played in October 10 times, by far the most of any team that never navigated the crapshoot playoff field to play in the World Series. In Kershaw’s first nine seasons alone, he experienced four NLCS losses and two crushing NLDS defeats. The Dodgers won their division in all six of those years.

Playoff Success Between Dodgers’ World Series Appearances (1989–2016)

Team Playoff Appearances World Series Appearances
Team Playoff Appearances World Series Appearances
Yankees 18 7
Braves 17 5
Cardinals 13 4
Red Sox 12 3
Athletics 11 2
Dodgers 10 0
Indians 9 3
Giants 9 5
Rangers 8 2
Twins 7 1
Astros 7 1
Cubs 7 1
Angels 7 1
Blue Jays 6 2
Phillies 6 3
Pirates 6 0

But the best team Los Angeles has fielded in 60 years of Dodgers baseball made it through the NL maze, first sweeping a tricky Diamondbacks team that had won the regular-season series against L.A., then knocking off the same Cubs club to which it had lost in last year’s NLCS. The Dodgers were sufficiently dominant that they beat the Cubs with their best position player, shortstop Corey Seager, sidelined with a back injury.

The Dodgers’ roster is a mix of born-and-bred superstars—Kershaw, Seager, rookie phenom Cody Bellinger—and ascendant role players—Hernández, Chris Taylor, and Justin Turner—and both groups contributed to the NLCS win.

On Thursday, Kershaw threw six efficient innings to add a strong start to his spotty playoff résumé. The three-time Cy Young winner is one of 26 pitchers in MLB history to exceed 100 playoff innings, and entering Thursday’s game, his postseason ERA and winning percentage both ranked last among that group. In his career, Kershaw has maintained his excellent strikeout and walk numbers in the playoffs but allowed home runs at more than twice his regular-season rate; fittingly, he surrendered another homer in Game 5, but this time he was stingy enough elsewhere that it was only a solo blast and the Cubs didn’t threaten to score at any other point.

Clayton Kershaw in the Regular Season vs. Playoffs (Before Thursday)

Split K-BB% HR/9 ERA Win %
Split K-BB% HR/9 ERA Win %
Regular Season 21.2% .60 2.36 0.692
Playoffs 20.8% 1.35 4.49 0.417
Playoff Rank (min. 100 innings) 1st Second to last Last Last

Bellinger, meanwhile, added an RBI double that opened Game 5’s scoring in the first inning, one night after he lasered a slider above Wrigley Field’s outfield ivy. The less heralded group produced Hernández’s three homers and seven RBI on Thursday, as well as performances from Taylor and Turner that earned them co-MVP honors: .316/.458/.789 hitting in the series from Taylor, the leadoff man who started at both center field and shortstop against the Cubs; and .333/.478/.667 hitting from Turner, who also supplied the Game 2 walk-off.

The Dodgers now have four days to wait before starting the World Series at home—the first Game 1 in Dodger Stadium since Gibson’s homer—against either the Astros or Yankees. Kershaw will be able to start on full rest, Seager should be back, and Taylor, Turner, and Bellinger will continue to pace a lineup that just pounded the Cubs for 11 runs and 16 hits in an elimination game.

The best team doesn’t always win the title in baseball, especially in the modern era of three playoff rounds, where it’s just as likely that a wild-card team will sneak a trophy. But in a loaded playoff field, 2017’s best team is just four wins away from a championship.