Chris Taylor's walk-off homer lifts Dodgers over Cardinals in NL wild-card game

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LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 6, 2021: Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder Chris Taylor (3) reacts while running the bases after his 2-run homer wins the game against the St Louis Cardinals in the National League Wild Card game at Dodger Stadium on October 6, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers left fielder Chris Taylor reacts while running the bases after his two-run homer wins the game against the St Louis Cardinals in the National League wild-card game at Dodger Stadium Wednesday. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The slider from Alex Reyes hung and hung, long enough for Chris Taylor to identify it, load up, and smash his struggles from the last three months with one swing.

When the line drive landed, and it landed quickly, over the left-field wall, Dodger Stadium was already deafening. His teammates were already spilling out of the dugout. Cody Bellinger, halfway between second and third base, had already thrown his hands in the air.

Taylor was dashing around the bases behind him. A mob at home plate waited to rip his jersey off in delirium, completing a 3-1 comeback victory for the Dodgers over the St. Louis Cardinals in Wednesday’s wild-card game to stay alive in their quest to become Major League Baseball’s first repeat World Series champions in two decades, and the first back-to-back champs in the franchise's 138-year history.

“These are the type of moments you dream about and live for,” Taylor said. “I’ll be able to look back on this the rest of my life.”

The swing ensured that the Dodgers’ franchise-record-tying 106 regular-season wins wouldn’t be erased with one forgettable night when their hired gun scuffled and the bats were silenced by the devil magic the Cardinals brewed to win 17 straight games in September.

Instead, they will face the San Francisco Giants in the postseason for the first time in the storied rivalry’s history in a five-game National League Division Series. Game 1 is Friday at Oracle Park.

“Giants-Dodgers,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “One of the greatest rivalries in sports. It’s happening.”

For all the firepower saturating the top half of the Dodgers’ lineup, it was Bellinger, a former MVP who batted .165 this season, and Taylor, who faded down the stretch, fueling the season-saving charge from the bottom. But the Dodgers thought the sage tío on their bench would play hero first.

Albert Pujols led off the Dodgers’ half of the ninth, pinch-hitting against the team he starred on for the first 11 seasons of his Hall of Fame career, against left-hander T.J. McFarland.

“We all thought Albert was going to hit a home run and end it,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said.

That would’ve been a fitting finish, but it didn’t happen. Pujols cracked a 107-mph line drive right at center fielder Harrison Bader for the first out. McFarland then got Steven Souza Jr. to hit a liner to center for the second out. That brought Bellinger to the plate.

He worked his second walk of the night to reach base for the third time to give the inning life and induce McFarland’s exit. He added oxygen by stealing second base for the second time in three innings with Taylor at the plate. The buzz in the ballpark suddenly amplified.

Taylor faced a daunting challenge. Reyes, like Taylor, struggled down the stretch enough for a demotion, but he was an All-Star closer in the first half.

Taylor, hampered by a neck injury in recent weeks, entered the playoffs seven for 64 with 26 strikeouts in his previous 25 games. An All-Star at the break, his dreadful second half left him on the bench to start the night before he entered in the seventh inning. He ended it in the middle of a champagne shower.

“You might not start the game, but you can impact the game,” Roberts said. “And Chris Taylor won us the game tonight.”

The elimination contest was the Dodgers’ first postseason game in front of a human crowd — not cardboard duplicates — at home since Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS. The Washington Nationals won that night, stunning and abruptly eliminating the 106-win Dodgers from the playoffs.

Max Scherzer and Trea Turner were on the other side spraying champagne and chugging beer in the visitors’ clubhouse when the upset was over. On Wednesday, they were on the field for the home team in starring roles. Turner, the team’s best position player, started at second base and batted third. Scherzer was on the mound.

The three-time Cy Young Award winner took the mound out of sorts, resembling the pitcher who stumbled in his final two regular-season starts over the dominant hurler from his first nine outings as a Dodger.

Tommy Edman led the game off with a flare single to right field. He stole second base before Paul Goldschmidt walked, took third base on Tyler O’Neill’s flyout to right field and scored on a wild pitch. Scherzer, after a two-out error from Corey Seager extended the inning, needed 18 pitches for the first three outs. It was ugly. And yet the Cardinals scored just once.

Scherzer went to three-ball counts to five of the first 11 batters he faced, ballooning his pitch count to 43 through two innings. He continued misfiring over the next three innings but kept the Cardinals off the board.

“I was just pitching on pins and needles,” Scherzer said.

The beginning of his end resembled the beginning of the game: Edman singled and Goldschmidt walked to start the fifth inning. O’Neill then struck out on Scherzer’s 94th pitch, but Roberts had made his decision: Scherzer was coming out.

Scherzer didn’t want to give up the ball, not that early. He was acquired during the summer to pitch deep into these autumn nights, to absorb the stressful workloads as advertised.

But Roberts had seen enough so he walked out to take the ball from his peeved pitcher. He stuck his right hand out for it. Scherzer shook the hand instead. Roberts then grabbed the ball from Scherzer’s glove and Scherzer lumbered off the field angry.

“I would never expect to be happy,” Roberts said, “but that was my call.”

Roberts summoned Joe Kelly to face Nolan Arenado, who hit into a force out at third base for the inning’s second out. Kelly, a thrill seeker, then struck out Dylan Carlson after falling behind 3-0.

Adam Wainwright, the elder statesman in the duel between aces defying time, didn’t last much longer then Scherzer. The soft-throwing 40-year-old dotter was relieved with one out in the sixth inning. He escaped a bases-loaded jam by getting Trea Turner to ground into an inning-ending double play in the third. His only blip came in the next inning when Justin Turner launched a solo home run. He was replaced after 95 pitches with a runner on first base and one out.

The Dodgers nearly took the lead in the eighth inning against Giovanni Gallegos, the Cardinals’ closer, when Will Smith cracked a line drive with Trea Turner at first base, but Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong was perfectly positioned and leaped to snag the ball to end the threat.

Kenley Jansen was the final reliever Roberts called on. The longtime closer and impending free agent entered knowing it could’ve been his last outing in a Dodgers uniform after 15 years with the organization. He began by getting DeJong to strike out swinging at a cutter. Edman followed with his third single and then stole second.

But Jansen locked it back in. Goldschmidt struck out swinging at a slider and O’Neill whiffed on a cutter. Dodger Stadium erupted as the Cardinals finished the night 0 for 11 with runners in scoring position. Jansen pounded his chest five times. Soon, Dodger Stadium was shaking again, reminiscent of so many nights of Octobers’ past, with one swing.

“Now,” Scherzer said, “we can party.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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