Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, wearing a light blue face mask stretched below his face, held back tears Sunday night. He was recalling everything the Dodgers went through to get to where he stood, on a platform down the right-field line in a sparsely filled ballpark 1,400 miles from Dodger Stadium.
The time away from family since reporting for an uncertain season in early July. The stance the team took against racial injustice. All the peculiarities playing a 60-game season during a pandemic presented. Through it all, he said, his club stuck together. Then he suppressed the bubbling emotions to deliver a message.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Roberts said. “But for the Dodgers fans who are here, the ones who aren’t here, we love you, we’re thinking about you, and this year is our year! This is our year!”
It still can be the Dodgers’ year, the year they finally win their first World Series since 1988, because they clawed back from a 3-1 deficit in the National League Championship Series to beat the Atlanta Braves. They completed the comeback with a 4-3 win in Game 7 on Cody Bellinger’s go-ahead home run in the seventh inning before an announced attendance of 10,920 at Globe Life Field, the neutral-site locale that has become home since they entered the bubble more than two weeks ago.
The Dodgers won three straight elimination games to win a playoff series for the second time in franchise history, joining the 1981 club that went on to win the World Series in a strike-shortened season. They are the first Dodgers team to ever win a seven-game series after facing a 3-1 deficit. They’ll play Game 1 of the World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday.
“Man, we never gave up,” said shortstop Corey Seager, who was named NLCS MVP after slugging an NLCS-record five home runs. “This team never quit, we came out every night and expected to win, even when we were down 3-1.”
The at-bats that propelled the Dodgers to their third National League pennant in four years were fitting.
The Dodgers were trailing 3-2 in the sixth inning when Kiké Hernández, pinch-hitting for Joc Pederson, fouled off three straight 2-2 pitches against left-hander A.J. Minter, two days removed from throwing 42 pitches in three dominant innings. Then Minter fired a 97-mph fastball, the eighth pitch of the encounter, over the middle. Hernández didn’t miss and the score was tied on his eighth career postseason home run.
“He made one mistake and I was lucky enough to put a good swing on it,” said Hernández, who became the first pinch-hitter in postseason history with a game-tying or go-ahead home run in a win-or-go home game.
One inning later, Bellinger was at the plate with the bases empty. Chris Martin stood 60 feet, 6 inches away. Martin was one out from keeping the score tied. Bellinger wouldn’t let him slip away.
The count was 2-and-2 when Bellinger fouled off three straight pitches — two sinkers and a cutter. The next pitch, the eighth of the battle, was a 94-mph sinker that Martin wishes he could have back. It was up and over the plate. Bellinger feasted, launching it over the right-field wall to snap a 3-3 tie.
Bellinger walked down the first-base line, holding a smile until he started his trot. The celebration was aggressive, too much so. Bellinger jammed his shoulder after banging arms with Hernández. He winced and ran straight into the trainer’s room.
“They popped it back in so I could go out and play defense,” Bellinger said. “It kind of hurt. I’m gonna maybe use my left arm. I’ve never dislocated that one.”
Dustin May was notified he was starting Game 7 via text message at 1 p.m. local time. With Ian Anderson starting for Atlanta, the choice created the first ever starting pitching matchup between rookies in a winner-take-all Game 7.
May was informed so late because the Dodgers meticulously examined every possible option. They landed on May, but not as a conventional starter. The plan instead was for May, who started Game 5, to log an inning before Tony Gonsolin was inserted.
The blueprint nearly disintegrated immediately. May issued two four-pitch walks to begin the game to bring up Marcell Ozuna with two on and none out. May threw Ozuna two strikes. Ozuna hit the second one for an RBI single. The Braves had a lead before the Dodgers recorded an out, but didn’t produce another run in the inning. Gonsolin then replaced May in the second. Dansby Swanson greeted him with a 434-foot leadoff home run.
The Dodgers forced Anderson to throw 47 pitches but stranded three runners through two innings. The trend was reversed in the third.
Anderson secured two outs with four pitches before issuing an eight-pitch walk to Justin Turner. Los Angeles busted through the opening. Max Muncy lined a double down the right-field line to bring up Will Smith. The catcher poked a groundball through the right side against the shift for a two-run single.
The Braves added a run in the fourth before their third baserunning catastrophe in three games cost them.
The fiasco began when Swanson ran on contact on Nick Markakis’ groundball to the third baseman Turner. A brief rundown ended with Turner applying a diving tag on Swanson. He turned around to find a gift: Austin Riley belatedly running to third base. Turner calmly threw from his knee to get Riley for a double play.
The Braves didn’t score again thanks in part to a familiar sequence in the fifth: Mookie Betts producing a game-changing defensive highlight.
In Game 5, he snared a line drive at his feet to start a double play. In Game 6, he robbed Ozuna of a run-producing extra-base hit. On Sunday, he jumped at the wall to rob a solo home run by Freddie Freeman.
“Today was my favorite,” Betts said, “because it was actually a home run.”
Nobody had a chance to catch the balls Hernández and Bellinger smashed. And, from there, Julio Urías finished the Braves off.
The late-game performances were a microcosm of the series. The Dodgers refused to panic when they sunk into an 0-2 hole. Facing adversity for the first time in this truncated season, they remained confident that their depth and talent would prevail. It did and they’re four wins away from the finish line.
“The job’s not done,” Roberts said, “and we understand that.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.