Cody Bellinger slashed the slider and raised his right arm, pointing to the hysterical group of Dodgers in the visitors’ dugout at Oracle Park as he ran down the first-base line, understanding the magnitude of the moment. He turned to them once he rounded first base and pounded his chest. After months of frustration, of injuries and struggles and flat-out looking lost with a bat in his hand, Bellinger had produced the biggest hit of the Dodgers’ season.
The single to right field off Camilo Doval, the formerly untouchable San Francisco Giants closer, scored Justin Turner from second base, giving the Dodgers the lead in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
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, to celebrate.
Finally, after months of hunting the Giants, they had slayed them with a 2-1 win to advance to the National League Championship Series for the fifth time in six years.
It 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 end the Dodgers’ NL West title streak at eight seasons.
Thursday was the 24th meeting between the rivals in 2021, with the Giants holding a 12-11 edge. They each entered with 109 wins, postseason included. They were the two best teams in the majors.
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 angry with Morales.
It appeared as though Flores didn’t swing at Scherzer’s 87-mph slider out of the zone, but Morales thought he did, ending the Giants’ season on a controversial call.
The drama started with a game of chess.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts sent Giants manager Gabe Kapler a text message Wednesday at 10 p.m., a few hours after Dodgers landed in San Francisco, relaying his club’s plans to have Corey Knebel, not Julio Urías, start Thursday. It was a courtesy common behind the scenes between teams, even between rivals with the stakes so high. Kapler said there wasn’t anything strange about it.
Usually the 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 among outside observers and their social media avatars.
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 the 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’ 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 the scheduled first pitch. That’s when the Giants finally announced their lineup in response to the Dodgers’ change.
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 the Dodgers scoreless over 72/3 innings 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.
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 night. 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 over the wall in straightaway center field. “Beat L.A.!” chants reverberated. The game was tied again.
It lasted until Bellinger stepped into the batter’s box.
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, a year after belting the go-ahead home run in Game 7 of the NLCS, he came through for the Dodgers again.