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The Dodgers’ Postseason Demons Are on Hold—for Now

Los Angeles beat Atlanta on Sunday night to complete an NLCS comeback and advance to the World Series. Can this team finally overcome its playoff issues?

League Championship - Atlanta Braves v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Seven Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

On March 26, when the actual MLB season was still almost four months away, Baseball-Reference started simulating the season with the help of the PC program Out of the Park Baseball 21. Every day, as a summer without sports dragged on, the website updated the simulated standings and stat pages, tantalizing baseball-deprived visitors with visions of a season they couldn’t see. In this alternate reality, the Dodgers had a faux-historic campaign, winning 121 games. Yet even that record-setting group couldn’t win a World Series: They exited the NLCS after five games.

The real Dodgers nearly did, too. After playing at a 116-win pace during the abbreviated regular season and sweeping the injury-depleted Brewers and Padres in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Dodgers lost three of their first four NLCS games against the Braves. In Game 5, they trailed Atlanta 2-1 with two outs in the sixth inning. But then Max Muncy worked a walk against Will Smith, the southpaw summoned to retire him, and the three-batter-minimum rule mandated that Smith stay in to face a righty, the Dodgers’ same-named catcher. The junior Smith took the senior Smith deep, and the Dodgers had a lead they never lost.

They never lost the 3-0 lead they took in the first inning of Game 6, either. And on Sunday, they fought back from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to win Game 7 and their third NL pennant in four years. The Dodgers have averted an eighth consecutive ouster from October and, for at least four more games, earned a reprieve from the familiar, uncomfortable conversations that an upset would spark.

In some ways, the Dodgers’ path to the pennant has been smoothed by circumstances: They beat the Brewers sans Corbin Burnes and Devin Williams, the Padres minus Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet, and the Braves without Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels. In other respects, the hurdles have been higher than they would have been in a normal year: The 16-team playoff forced them to survive an additional round, and the neutral-site setting of the last two postseason series deprived them of home-field advantage. Ultimately, though, a playoff format that was even more upset-oriented than usual yielded a matchup between the top two seeds in their respective leagues, the only teams to win 40 or more games in the 60-game regular season. But just as the Astros almost offed the Rays in the ALCS in San Diego, the Braves pushed the Dodgers to the brink in Arlington.

Game 7 was a back-and-forth affair in which both teams squandered chances to score. The Braves, up 3-2 in the fourth, had runners on second and third with nobody out. Thanks to a two-man TOOTBLAN in which Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley were tagged out at home plate and third base, respectively, their scoring stopped there. In the next inning, MVP contender Mookie Betts robbed MVP favorite Freddie Freeman of a lead-extending home run—the third spectacular, run-saving play by Betts in as many games.

The Dodgers squandered chances, too: They went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, stranded 10 total runners and, in the sixth, saw Chris Taylor thrown out at the plate after series MVP Corey Seager, who took an oh-fer in Game 7, failed to get the ball by a drawn-in infield. Their first two runs came on a humble hit by Smith, a single off a first-pitch curveball from Braves starter Ian Anderson that scored Justin Turner and Max Muncy. The ball skipped through where the second baseman would stand in a straight-up alignment because the normally shift-averse Braves stationed three infielders on the left side of second—according to the numbers, an ill-advised call against most right-handed hitters.

The Dodgers’ tying and winning runs came courtesy of solo homers by pinch hitter Enrique Hernández in the sixth and Cody Bellinger in the seventh. Bellinger had batted .167 to that point in the series—albeit with a homer, a triple, and four walks—but he beat Chris Martin on a centered sinker and strolled up the line as he watched his 400-footer fly all the way out to right. After crossing the plate, Bellinger celebrated so hard that he popped his right arm out of its socket.

The Dodgers’ greatest vulnerability is the back end of their bullpen (and the often-confounding ways in which Dave Roberts deploys it). Shaky closer Kenley Jansen looked impressive in finishing games 5 and 6, but even a team as deep as the Dodgers was somewhat depleted as they started their seventh game in seven days. It wasn’t clear who would close if the Dodgers held a late-inning lead, and even the pitching path to a save situation was fraught with opportunities for a wild Joe Kelly or a gassed Clayton Kershaw to derail the team’s dreams.

Roberts raised eyebrows by bringing back Game 5 starter Dustin May as an opener in Game 7, and May allowed Atlanta’s first run in his only inning of work. Tony Gonsolin, who could have started instead, allowed two runs in two iffy innings. After that, though, the bullpen took over and pitched well enough to prevent Roberts from making any self-sabotaging decisions. Blake Treinen, Brusdar Graterol, and Julio Urías—the third nominal starter to enter the all-hands-on-deck effort—supplied six scoreless, hitless innings, whose perfection was marred only by a free pass from Graterol.

Urías—who gave the Dodgers three scoreless innings in relief in Game 1 of the wild-card round, delivered five innings of one-run ball as the bulk guy in NLDS Game 3, and performed the same feat as the starter in NLCS Game 3—took the ball in the seventh and never relinquished it, efficiently recording nine outs on 39 pitches. Because of his heroics, the Dodgers didn’t have to ask Jansen to pitch a third straight day. Urías just turned 24 in August, but he has already amassed a sterling postseason résumé, boasting a 2.84 ERA in 16 career playoff outings (the worst of which came in the 2016 NLCS, when he was a 19-year-old rookie).

The fist-pumping, dugout-railing-leaping, fake-selfie-snapping Braves compiled MLB’s third-best BaseRuns record this season and outhit every team but L.A. In the postseason, they rode the brilliance of their bats, shutdown starting pitching by Anderson and Max Fried, well-timed outings by unexpected sources of six-inning scoreless starts (Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright), and solid relief work to the precipice of a pennant. They snapped their 10-postseason-series losing streak, advanced for the first time in almost 20 years, and fought the Dodgers to a standstill until the seventh inning of the seventh game of the NLCS. They’ll likely be back for more October runs with their current core—as will L.A. If any franchises can testify to the cruelties of October, it’s the Braves and the Dodgers, the owners of the longest and third-longest postseason appearance streaks, respectively. The Braves won one World Series during their 14-season streak. The Dodgers are still looking for their first in the midst of an eight-season streak.

The Dodgers preserved that search on Sunday thanks to a combination of homegrown talent (Bellinger, Smith, Urías), astute, low-profile pickups (Hernández, Treinen), and Betts, the superstar they imported by parting with stockpiled prospects and extended by flexing the financial muscle that their developmental edge allows them to reserve for truly elite talent. Victory went to the team that hit more homers, as it so often has in this all-or-nothing October. But Game 7, which produced only 11 total strikeouts, gave us a little of everything: lights-out bullpen pitching, yes, but also highlight-reel defense, daring rundowns, and baserunning blunders. You know, baseball. That smorgasbord of action beyond the batter-pitcher matchups made for a fulfilling end to a Championship Series round that delivered much more drama than it looked like it would when the Rays went up 3-0 and Atlanta went up 3-1.

Beginning on Tuesday, Andrew Friedman’s current team will take on his former team, the Dodgers’ AL doppelgänger in depth and developmental acumen (if not player payroll). MLB’s two most redundant, redoubtable rosters survived the gauntlet of everyday action and will now go head-to-head in a series that will reintroduce the idea of off days. Clayton Kershaw, who’ll get the ball in Game 1, will once again try to remove the October asterisk from his almost-flawless career, and Roberts will try to shed his reputation for postseason mismanaging.

By winning eight straight division titles and repeatedly putting themselves in position to win pennants, the Dodgers—adjusting for era—have already established themselves as one of the most successful teams of all time. Until they win a World Series, though, they won’t be widely thought of that way. The odds are ever in their favor. But simulations of this series aren’t what we’ve been waiting for. We want the real thing.