Justin Turner’s latest game-winning playoff home run was a bit lucky. In a 1-1 tie in the sixth inning of Game 1 of the World Series, with leadoff hitter Chris Taylor on first base and two outs, Turner lofted an up-and-in Dallas Keuchel cutter toward Dodger Stadium’s left-field bleachers. The pitch was over the plate but not a complete mistake; the contact was solid but not optimally square. Turner’s last game winner, a Game 2 NLCS walk-off, was a no-doubter off the bat. But after Tuesday’s game, even Turner admitted that he wasn’t sure if this blast would clear the fence. Statcast estimated that, based on the ball’s exit velocity and angle off the bat, it would have resulted in a homer only 13 percent of the time.
But Astros outfielder Marwin González retreated to the edge of the grass, then the warning track, then plastered his back against the fence. The bell kept sailing, perhaps carried by the sweltering L.A. air that measured 103 degrees at first pitch, and landed just beyond González’s reach in the narrow space between the wall and first row of the stands. Turner skipped from the batter’s box, rounded the bases, and was met with a raucous welcome in the home dugout as chants of “Justin! Justin!” carried through the equally raucous crowd.
“I knew I back-spun it pretty good,” Turner said. “I knew I hit it really high. And I knew it was about 98 degrees. So when it’s that hot here, the ball does travel a lot better. … If it’s 10 degrees cooler, that’s probably a routine fly ball in left field.”
Turner drove in the final (and winning) runs of the night, which saw L.A. open the World Series with a brisk 3-1 win over Houston. Clayton Kershaw was the standout performer in his first taste of the Fall Classic, hurling seven innings of 11-strikeout, one-run ball as the Dodgers ace reversed the narrative that has plagued his otherwise unimpeachable career. Turner’s legacy wasn’t so changed on Tuesday, but that’s because his October track record already hews to heroic status. His latest game winner only added a new paragraph to that tale.
“He’s that guy that you want in the big spots, and he doesn’t scare off,” manager Dave Roberts said. “Gosh, JT has had so many big hits for us this year.”
As I wrote in my World Series preview piece, it’s not just this year, either: Of the more than 300 batters who have amassed at least 100 playoff plate appearances, Turner ranks third in OPS (1.121), trailing only Babe Ruth (1.211) and Lou Gehrig (1.208).
For reference, Ted Williams’s career OPS was 1.116. Playoff Turner has essentially hit like the purest hitter who ever swung a bat, and he’s done so against postseason pitching staffs, which generally feature only the best pitchers in the sport. The list of six pitchers who have allowed his postseason home runs includes Max Scherzer, Jake Arrieta, Wade Davis, and now Keuchel—three Cy Young winners and an elite closer—plus Taijuan Walker and John Lackey in the earlier rounds this year.
That kind of career OPS mark can’t result from a few fluky games, but rather necessitates comprehensive dominance. Here is Turner’s series-by-series performance, not counting the 2014 NLDS, when he didn’t start a game.
2015 NLDS: 1.392 OPS
2016 NLDS: 1.324
2016 NLCS: .683
2017 NLDS: 1.226
2017 NLCS: 1.145
2017 WS, so far: 1.250
Those decimal points aren’t in the wrong place. Turner’s OPS is north of 1.100 in five of six series since he’s become a Dodgers regular. He’s now started 25 playoff games and reached base in 24 of them, driven in a run in 14, and scored a run in 12.
“Postseason is definitely a lot more fun,” Turner said. “Sandy [Koufax] told me today, ‘162 is work. Once you get to the playoffs, it’s fun.’ … I agree with him 100 percent. … And just to be in the moment and soak it in and take a step back and look around and see almost 60,000 people in Dodger Stadium on their feet going crazy, it’s pretty special.”
Turner is a leader of the so-called “fly-ball revolution,” which helped turn him, Daniel Murphy, J.D. Martinez, and others from slap hitters into sluggers, as they focused on elevating the ball with an eye on extra-base hits rather than line-drive singles. Before 2015, Turner’s single-season home run high was seven; he’s exceeded 20 in each of the past two seasons while also spreading the philosophy to teammates in the Dodgers clubhouse. Turner “preaches it all the time,” said Taylor, who has become a fly-ball disciple and transformed his own career accordingly. Taylor and Turner shared MVP honors in the NLCS, and on Tuesday, the former led the game off with a home run on Keuchel’s first pitch.
Before Game 1, that approach seemed to match advantageously with Keuchel’s preferred plan, as Houston’s starter typically throws low sinkers, which would hypothetically intersect with Turner’s looping, lofting swing path. But Keuchel fooled the Dodgers third baseman his first few times through the order with darting cutters up in the zone.
Turner whiffed on the rare elevated pitch from Keuchel in his first at-bat, then swung late and popped out an up-and-in, 87.1 mile-per-hour cutter in his second trip to the plate. But Turner benefited from an in-game adjustment, in addition to that broader season-over-season swing change. He said postgame that after that second out, he grabbed a smaller bat to better turn on Keuchel’s pitches. The fourth pitch of his next at-bat was a nearly identical offering to the one he had popped up—an 87.0 mile-per-hour cutter aimed near the same side of the strike zone—and the bat switch worked.
After the game, Roberts said he knew it was a homer right away; Houston skipper A.J. Hinch said he didn’t think so when the ball left the bat. But a little luck and abnormal autumn weather helped, and the Dodgers cruised through the last three innings en route to a 1-0 series lead. They’re three games away from their first title since 1988, when Kirk Gibson homered and formed some of the earliest baseball memories for Turner, who’s a lifelong Dodgers fan.
He has three more chances—at least—to continue adding to his October legacy. The way he’s hitting, perhaps this newest “latest game-winning playoff home run” won’t even be his last of the month.