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Cody Bellinger choked up with two strikes, slashed the slider and raised his right arm, pointing to the hysterical group in the visitors’ dugout as he jogged down the first-base line inside a suddenly silent Oracle Park in the ninth inning Thursday night.
He turned to them once he rounded first base and pounded his chest. Following months of frustration, of injuries and struggles and flat-out looking lost at the plate, Bellinger had produced the biggest hit of the Dodgers’ season for the second October in a row.
A year after clubbing the go-ahead home run in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, Bellinger’s single to right field in the ninth inning off Camilo Doval, the San Francisco Giants’ formerly untouchable closer, scored Justin Turner to give the Dodgers the lead on their way to a 2-1 win over Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
“You don’t think about being that guy,” Bellinger said. “When the opportunity is there and the moment is there, you just try to stay simple and stay within yourself. “
Minutes later, after first base umpire Gabe Morales ruled that Wilmer Flores didn’t check his swing, the Dodgers converged around Max Scherzer, their closer for the night who picked up his first career save, to celebrate the sweetest of outcomes. Finally, after months of hunting the Giants, they slayed their vexing rivals to advance to the National League Championship Series for the fifth time in six years. They will play Game 1 against the Atlanta Braves at Truist Park on Saturday, eight wins shy of repeating as World Series champions for the first time in franchise history.
“We poured everything we could into this series,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It took everything to beat these guys.”
The winner-take-all thriller was a fitting finish to an unforeseen battle for supremacy.
The Giants smashed expectations to become the Dodgers’ stiffest test in the National League. They emerged on top in the regular season, finishing one game ahead in the standings to snap the Dodgers’ NL West title streak at eight seasons. Thursday was the 24th meeting between the heavyweights, with the Giants holding a 12-11 edge. They each entered with 109 wins, playoffs included, after splitting the first four postseason games ever played between the foes. It all came down to whoever reached 110.
Before the game, Vin Scully tweeted that it was the most important meeting in the storied rivalry’s history. Famous faces showed up to witness it. The cities’ mayors. Barry Bonds. Members of the San Francisco 49ers and Golden State Warriors. Rob Lowe. They were part of a vibrant sellout crowd of 42,375 people nearly all clad in black and orange that left cursing Morales’ name.
It appeared that Flores didn’t swing at Scherzer’s 87-mph slider out of the zone, but Morales thought he did, ending the Giants’ dream season on a controversial call.
“There’s no need to be angry about that,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said. “I just think it’s just a disappointing way to end it.”
The drama started with a game of chess.
Usually those courtesies are kept private, but games usually don’t grab the baseball world’s attention and decisions usually don’t upend that world. The first-guessing was rampant.
Urías was Major League Baseball’s only 20-game winner this season. He recorded a 2.96 earned-run average in 32 starts. He was good in Game 2, holding the Giants to one run over and five innings, and threw just 72 pitches. Why mess with that?
The calculus began with, in the Dodgers’ eyes, the main reason for the Giants’ surprising success this season: their ability to dictate matchups with a wide assortment of lineups. Though the Giants don’t have the Dodgers’ star power, they used platoons to squeeze the most out of certain players to post the best record in the majors.
By having the right-handed Knebel open the game with the left-handed Urías looming, the Dodgers forced the Giants to react on their terms. How many left-handers would they start to counter Knebel? Would they be willing to burn any of them when Urías entered game, no matter how early? It was about snatching some control from the Giants to create as many favorable matchups as possible.
The Dodgers didn’t consider the strategy for Urías’s Game 2 start. It was an idea hatched by the front office after Game 4 and presented to Roberts on Wednesday.
“It’s from all the way to the tippy-top of the Dodgers organization on down,” Roberts said. “It was a decision we all made together.”
Roberts said Urías was the one starter in the Dodgers’ rotation who could handle the audible after he starred in a hybrid role during the team’s World Series run last October. He acknowledged there was merit to the argument that Urías deserved the start but maximizing their chances of winning took precedent.
“What it does, it opens you up for criticism,” Roberts said. “But you can’t do a job for fear of failure or potential criticism. You have to do your job, and whatever you feel is the best way to win a game. I don’t think it’s riskier. It’s different.”
The final pregame chess move was made at 4:48 p.m., just over an hour before first pitch, when the Giants finally announced their lineup. Roberts was sitting in the dugout when a team official told him the lineup was out. Roberts asked him to read it.
“OK,” Roberts said after absorbing the nine names. “I didn’t know if there was going to be one lefty or three or two.”
The Giants had one left-handed hitter in their lineup Game 2, which Urías started. This time, they inserted three left-handed hitters to initially oppose Knebel, a right-hander, even though Urías waited in the bullpen.
The strategy worked to near perfection. Knebel worked around Buster Posey’s two-out double to keep the Giants scoreless. Right-hander Brusdar Graterol was given the second inning. He gave up an infield hit and a one-out bloop single, but stranded the two runners.
Urías then got the ball to face the top of the Giants’ lineup in the third inning. The Giants then had Donovan Solano, a right-handed hitter, pinch-hit for leadoff hitter Tommy La Stella, a left-handed batter. An inning later, the right-handed-hitting Austin Slater replaced Mike Yastrzemski, a left-handed batter.
So, in the end, the Dodgers used two lesser pitchers to get through the Giants’ lineup once and impelled the Giants to burn two players before the fifth inning. The Dodgers were progressing towards checkmate. The problem was they weren’t scoring.
Logan Webb was stifling the Dodgers for the second time in less than a week after holding them scoreless over 72/3 innings in his postseason debut in Game 1. The right-hander faced the minimum through three innings. A Dodger didn’t reach scoring position until the fourth when Mookie Betts recorded the second of his four singles and Will Smith drew a two-out walk. They were left stranded.
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It wasn’t until the sixth inning, which Betts led off with his third hit, that the Dodgers broke through. With Corey Seager at the plate, Betts stole second base to place Webb in the toughest predicament of his playoff life. Seager then stroked an RBI double down the left-field line.
“Let’s go Dodgers!” chants erupted from the specks of blue dispersed throughout the stands. Los Angeles had their first run off Webb in the series and a lead. It was fleeting.
Darin Ruf squared two balls up in his first two at-bats before stepping into the batter’s box to lead off the bottom of the sixth. Both were just long outs. The third one wasn’t. The burly outfielder launched a 452-foot blast off Urías, who pitched four innings, over the wall in straightaway center field. “Beat L.A.!” chants reverberated. The game was tied again.
The sides remained deadlocked until Bellinger stepped into the batter’s box with one out in the ninth inning. The NL MVP two years ago, Bellinger batted .165 and lost his starting spot multiple times during the regular season. But he was in the Dodgers’ lineup Tuesday, playing first base in the injured Max Muncy’s place. By the end of the night, after all the punches were thrown and all the moves were made, he was the difference in the Dodgers advancing again.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.