“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too little,” Thomas Paine wrote, obviously in anticipation of watching Yasiel Puig and the Dodgers bat-flipping, crotch-chopping, and throat-slashing the Milwaukee Brewers to an earlier-than-desired winter vacation.
Thanks to home runs by Puig and Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers won Game 7 of the NLCS 5-1 and are on their way to the World Series again. Saturday’s victory brings an end to seven thrilling games of late comebacks, gamesmanship, and chippiness. Tempers flared, unwritten rules were broken, and the book of tactical orthodoxy was thrown in the garbage, set on fire, laden with sandbags, and committed to the depths of the sea. The Milwaukee Brewers held the initiative at every turn, forcing the action with pitching changes and double switches, nipping at the Dodgers’ heels like a goose chasing a dog.
And it worked, for a while. The Brewers got to Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in Game 1. They took the Dodgers to 13 innings in Los Angeles in Game 4, despite losing starter Gio González after just one inning. And they roughed up Hyun-Jin Ryu while facing elimination in Game 6. While the Dodgers managed to get to most of Milwaukee’s vaunted bullpen at some time or another, they also never managed to solve relief ace Josh Hader.
By Game 7, the Dodgers had developed a big attitude, honed by Manny Machado’s hockey-pest antics and reinforced by relentless booing from the Miller Park crowd. Christian Yelich’s first-inning home run mattered about as much as David Freese’s did in Game 6, when the Brewers scored seven of the game’s next eight runs. In the second inning, Machado pulled out a surprise 3-2 bunt and once on first base adjusted his jockstrap for the benefit of the home crowd. Bellinger homered off Jhoulys Chacín five pitches later and pounded his biceps as he rounded the bases.
Some of the Dodgers’ theatrics were choreographed, but for the most part they seemed like emotional outbursts, the kind of thing you do when you just have too many feelings bottled up and can’t keep the cork from popping any longer.
It’s almost like after six games of playing on their back foot, the Dodgers realized that they were the more talented team and won the game by sheer, brute force. In addition to having four of the best five starting pitchers in the series, the Dodgers brought 10 position players who had an OPS+ of 110 or better in at least 200 PA, while the Brewers had just five. This is, after all, the returning core of a team that won 104 games last year and went to Game 7 of the World Series. The flip side of that, of course, is that this year’s Dodgers underachieved in the regular season, winning just 92 games, including their victory over Colorado in the NL West tiebreaker. They stumbled, wobbled, and seemed to seek out strange speed bumps, coalescing only at the last possible moment into the implacable bully they were advertised to be.
And even as the whole picture came together in Game 7, the Dodgers suffered a few nervy moments, none more so than Yelich’s fifth-inning fly ball that looked like a game-tying double off the bat but somehow ended up in Chris Taylor’s glove.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts called a bizarre game. He brought in Julio Urías—who surrendered the almost-game-tying-double—to pitch on consecutive days for the first time in his career. Roberts threw away one of his last nine outs in order to get a second inning out of Ryan Madson for some reason, and set up his bullpen to have Kershaw get the last three outs, despite having a rested Pedro Báez in the bullpen and a four-run cushion on the scoreboard.
No matter. Walker Buehler matched Chacín and Hader—who, entering this game, had not given up a run in 17 1/3 combined playoff innings pitched—pitch for pitch. Puig and Machado combined to go 5-for-8, Taylor reached base three times and made that potentially series-saving catch, and once Puig’s home run gave the Dodgers some breathing room, in came Madson, Jansen, and Kershaw. They recorded the game’s final 12 outs, seven of them by strikeout, while allowing just one base runner. The Brewers never had cause to hope.
When the Dodgers next take the field, Tuesday night in Boston, they’ll be the underdogs, the team that made it this far only thanks to a furious charge in September, with a creative and unorthodox manager and a team full of chippy agitators. But for one last night in 2018 the Dodgers were the biggest kid on the playground, and they took Milwaukee’s lunch money.