$265M Dodgers Finally Step Up to End 29-Year Pennant Drought

Scott MillerNational MLB ColumnistOctober 20, 2017

The Los Angeles Dodgers players celebrate after Game 5 of baseball's National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, in Chicago. The Dodgers won 11-1 to win the series and advance to the World Series. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

CHICAGO — Thump! went Enrique Hernandez's bat, pop! went the Champagne and vroom! went the Los Angeles bus. Rapidly.

En route to their first World Series in 29 years, this deep and talented bunch of Dodgers, the National League's best team during the regular season and now officially in October as well, learned many things along the path to the pennant. And one of the most essential occurred here in Wrigley Field just 12 months ago, as they got caught in a web of humanity when they tried to get out after losing the NL pennant to the Cubs.

So many celebrating Chicagoans were crushing the Wrigleyville neighborhood that the Dodgers were marooned in the clubhouse, their team bus delayed an hour until state troopers arrived to escort the vehicle through the madness.

Now, on the eve of this cruise of a National League Championship Series, ace Clayton Kershaw was asked what the Dodgers learned in losing to the Cubs last autumn that they could carry forward into this year's NLCS.

"Try to walk a few blocks and get an Uber if we lose," Kershaw quipped.

Everyone laughed, and six days later, the Dodgers were the ones laughing last, well into the raucous wee hours of the morning, having emphatically shuttered Wrigleyville for the winter. There was no need for an Uber. It was a smooth ride for this steamroller of a team from the first pitch in Game 1 to the last out in Thursday's 11-1 Game 5 bashing.

The final memories of the Dodgers' last game between their 1988 World Series triumph and their next appearance in the Fall Classic, which will open Tuesday in Dodger Stadium, are Kershaw getting that postseason monkey off of his back with six one-run innings in the clincher and outfielder Enrique Hernandez smashing three homers, including a grand slam, on a seven-RBI evening.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 19:  Enrique Hernandez #14 of the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrates hitting a home run in the ninth inning against the Chicago Cubs during game five of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field on October 19, 2017 in Chic
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

But all year, this was about getting past the Cubs.

The Dodgers remembered last October. Then, the regular-season schedule this year just happened to put them in Wrigley Field for the Cubs' home-opening series in April, when they were forced to watch Joe Maddon's crew take another victory lap in receiving their World Series rings. And, of course, the two clubs wound up on a collision course for the NL pennant yet again.

"It's awesome," Hernandez said amid one of the most energetic—and deserved—Champagne parties in recent memory. "I don't remember much of it, but when we were up 3-0 I knew the game [had a chance to] get out of hand."

So he belted a grand slam in the third to make it 7-0, and…

"Up seven with Kershaw pitching and with the bullpen we have, I don't think a combined team of the best players in the history of baseball could overcome that," Hernandez said. "I don't know what I did running around the bases. I don't know what I did when I got back to the dugout.

"I don't remember much of this game."


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But he knew one thing for certain.

"Not only did we beat the world champs, we did it in an empty stadium," Hernandez continued, now going full throttle. "We crushed the fans' hearts and they left early and by the last out, it was all Dodger fans in the stadium."

Paint it blue, Dodger blue.

"The city needed this," said Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda, the last man to manage the Dodgers into a World Series, from over in a safe corner of the room, on the other side of the Champagne spray. "They've supported the Dodgers so much. We owed them this year, and they're getting it because we've got great fans who really supported the team.

"We've always had good fans, even when we weren't winning. To see this happen … it's a gift to them."

It is a $265 million gift, the richest payroll in the game. If the New York Yankees push through to meet the Dodgers in what would be a resumption of the classic World Series matches most recently played in 1981, 1978 and 1977, it would represent the game's two largest payrolls battling in the Fall Classic. The Yankees check in at $224 million and lead the Houston Astros three games to two heading into Game 6 of the ALCS on Friday night.

"Hopefully," Kershaw quipped, "they go seven games and play 37 innings in the seventh game."

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

After falling just short of the World Series last year, Andrew Friedman, Dodgers president of baseball operations, and his staff decided that it was a team worth bringing back as close to whole as possible. So they re-signed their own free agents, Justin Turner (four years, $64 million), closer Kenley Jansen (five years, $80 million) and starter Rich Hill (three years, $48 million).

Under second-year manager Dave Roberts, an already close team jelled even more in spring training and then during the season as it raced out to an 80-33 start. When the Dodgers hit the skids later in the year with a stunning 11-game losing streak that wobbled to 16 losses in 17 games before they righted themselves, the core didn't crack.

Kershaw, 29, the 10-year veteran who has been asked to carry an inordinate amount of the baggage in previous postseasons only to see situations blow up on him with one bad inning here, another there and shoddy relief work at times that led to a 5-7 postseason record with a 4.57 ERA, spoke emotionally after Thursday's game about how this is his favorite team of which he's ever been a part.

In fact, in talking about the number of superstars wearing Dodger blue, Kershaw even said, "I'm just really thankful I get to be on this team."

That's right. Kershaw has won three Cy Young Awards and one MVP, he's a seven-time All-Star and he's become a close friend of legendary Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, and Kershaw is thankful he "gets" to be on this team.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 19:  Yasiel Puig #66 of the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrates in the clubhouse after defeating the Chicago Cubs 11-1 in game five of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field on October 19, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

As the Champagne splashed, so many other Dodgers were thankful to play their part in getting Kershaw into his first World Series.

"It's easy to say the most impressive thing is when he takes the ball every fifth day," said Justin Turner, who, along with Chris Taylor, was named co-MVP of the NLCS. "But for me, the more impressive thing is watching him go about his business on those other four days, the work the he puts in and the routine and the tireless effort and training and amount of stuff that goes into his day, each and every day, to lead up to that start. It's something I've never seen out of anyone my entire life.

"It's incredible. No one, no one, that I've ever met works harder behind the scenes than Clayton does."

But the thing about this Dodgers team, what made it so dominant, went way beyond Kershaw and the so-called superstars. In the Dodgers' Game 3 win on Tuesday, all five RBI were produced by players who were not even on the Opening Day roster. Taylor was the 26th man coming out of spring training and opened the season at Triple-A Oklahoma City. Andre Ethier, because of a back injury, managed just 38 plate appearances this summer. Utility man Kyle Farmer had only 20 plate appearances, spending most of the season at Oklahoma City and Double-A Tulsa. And starter Yu Darvish was a July trade deadline acquisition from Texas.

Meanwhile, shortstop Charlie Culberson, a defensive whiz, had just 15 plate appearances this entire season but plugged in for an injured Corey Seager in the NLCS.

Yeah, the Dodgers have high-priced superstars in Kershaw ($33 million this year) and Adrian Gonzalez ($21.5 million, but done for the year with a back injury), but no small part of that payroll has been earmarked to provide depth that few other teams have.

"Every year, it's been a fun year for guys," Kershaw said. "But there's something about this year."

Then he pointed out how Hernandez sidled up to him just before the start of the game Thursday night and said, "Hey, I've got your back tonight."

"He said that before I even went out there," Kershaw said. "Then he goes and hits three home runs."

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 19:  The Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate defeating the Chicago Cubs 11-1 in game five of the National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field on October 19, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Dodgers advance to the 2017 World Series.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Every night, it seems, it's been like that for these guys. The Dodgers have won seven of eight postseason games, and now Roberts says he expects Seager to be back in the lineup for Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday. And in case there is any doubt, Roberts said, "I can assure you Clayton will be starting Game 1."

Against L.A.'s bullpen, Cubs batters started this series 0-for-29 before finally scratching out their first hit. Turner batted .333, slugged .667 and posted a .478 on-base percentage. He had two homers, seven RBI and was 4-for-5 with runners in scoring position, including smashing a walk-off homer in Game 2 that elicited a congratulatory text from Kirk Gibson, the last man to hit a walk-off homer in a Dodgers postseason game. Taylor, meanwhile, the quintessential leadoff man, saw 16 pitches in his first two at-bats alone in Game 5 on Thursday night.

Even after the Cubs eked out a win in Game 4 to avoid the embarrassment of being swept, there was never any doubt.

"We're a better team than they are," one Dodger said simply before Thursday's clincher. "We know it, and they know it. Last year, they were better."

By the time the disappointed 42,735 headed out of Wrigley Field and into their winter a few hours later, everyone agreed.

"The better team won over the course of these five games," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "They played really well. They kind of outpitched us, and everything else. So give them credit."

Credit, indeed.

Now, bring on the Yankees...or the Astros. Doesn't matter, the Dodgers will be home in the Los Angeles sunshine, resting up, savoring the moment and, heck, probably hearing a whole lot about history.

First World Series in 29 years. The Dodgers? Finally.

How will they even know how to act after a wait this long?

"If we win, I might retire," Kershaw said. "I might call it a career."

     

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.