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Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts sensed no anxiety among his teammates as they prepared for what might have been the last game of their season, no jitters or strange vibes or special energy as they faced elimination at the hands of the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
“I think everybody was kind of chill, relaxed, and wanted to play," Betts said. "It's not like we're all of a sudden going to start hitting it harder or throwing it further or throwing it faster, or whatever. So it's the same game we have been playing. It's just a win-or-go-home situation."
Just win or go home. Nothing major.
At least nothing the Dodgers hadn’t been through during postseason play this year and last, after winning four straight elimination games dating to last year’s National League Championship Series against Atlanta. And with ace Walker Buehler starting Tuesday, though on short rest, Betts liked the Dodgers’ chances of extending their streak of dramatic escapes and extending their series to a Game 5 finale Thursday in San Francisco.
“I just know when our backs are against the wall, we got a guy named Walker Buehler that ends up getting us out of it," Betts said. "So he did it again today."
Buehler justified the Dodgers’ faith in him by giving up only three hits and one run over 4 1/3 innings, and Betts provided valuable offensive support that kept the Dodgers going until they finally broke the game open. Their 7-2 victory wasn’t a rout until late, but it couldn’t have been a romp at all without key contributions from Betts, who has been the personification of chill in the most crucial of postseason situations.
After the Dodgers clawed out single runs in the first and second innings to chase Giants starter Anthony DeSclafani and left the bases loaded in the third without scoring, it felt as if they should have been leading by four or five runs, not merely two.
“We felt it, too,” manager Dave Roberts said of the personnel in the dugout, “but the bottom line is the scoreboard is the only thing that does matter. These guys, the Giants, they do a great job of limiting damage, keeping their club in it, and then they kind of prey on momentum.”
The right-handed-hitting Betts put needed distance between the teams in the fourth inning, breaking the offensive logjam by hitting a two-run home run to the opposite field in the fourth inning off reliever Jarlin Garcia. His home run, off a 93 mph four-seam fastball on an 0-and-1 count, doubled the Dodgers’ lead to 4-0 and allowed the announced sellout crowd of 52,935 at Dodger Stadium to release the emotions it had been holding in.
Betts enjoyed the moment for the team, not for himself. “Obviously super-excited to just put some runs on the board," he said. "But I think it was just the 26 guys. Those are the most important guys that the feeling was for, and I think it gave us a lot of energy and we were able to continue to keep pressure on them and obviously win in the end."
The home run also won him considerable praise from Roberts. “I think Mookie's been getting some hits, but to see him go back-side like that was really impressive,” Roberts said of the opposite-field homer. “I told him after the homer, I said that's the best swing he's taken all year.”
After the Giants scratched out a run in the top of the fifth, Betts pushed the lead to 5-1 in the bottom of the inning with a sacrifice fly that scored Cody Bellinger, who had followed Gavin Lux’s leadoff walk with a single. Catcher Will Smith made it a laugher with a two-run home run to center in the eighth.
This series has been feast or famine for the Dodgers, who were shut out in the opener, scored nine runs in Game 2, were shut out again in Game 3 and then produced a series-best 12 hits Tuesday. Buehler certainly was grateful for the support.
“To score kind of early and often, even if it's one, is huge for us as starters," he said. "Just gives you a little bit of security and you can be aggressive and do the things that you want to do without fear, and it's a hats-off to them.
“And then to pile on late and get their starter out of there early is huge for us in terms of what we got next, and that's a big game in San Francisco. And the playoffs are all about momentum and I've talked about that kind of almost too much, but I think it's huge, and a win like this for us, especially the fashion we did it, is huge for us going [on Thursday].”
The Dodgers’ starter Thursday will be Julio Urias, who followed up his 20-win regular season by winning Game 2 against the Giants on Saturday. Urias is 7-2 in 19 career postseason games — four of them starts — with a 2.68 earned-run average. He made six appearances during the Dodgers’ World Series run last year and closed Game 6 as the Dodgers clinched their first championship since 1988. That was more than enough for Betts to believe Urias will get the Dodgers past the Giants and to the NLCS.
“Just seems like Julio has this weird but, like, old soul about him," Betts said. "He just gets on the mound like he's been there, he's done it, and you just — he's got so much confidence in himself that it just kind of oozes out on everyone else. He may not say a whole lot, but you can just kind of see it. … I'm sure he'll have that confidence oozing out and we’ve just got to win one game."
Just one win, or go home. The Dodgers seem comfortable enough in that situation to do it again.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.