Dodgers Head to World Series but Work Isn't Done—It's Title or Bust

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistOctober 19, 2020

Los Angeles Dodgers' Cody Bellinger, right, celebrates his home run with Enrique Hernandez against the Atlanta Braves during the seventh inning in Game 7 of a baseball National League Championship Series Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Arlington, Texas.(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Eric Gay/Associated Press

For three straight games in the National League Championship Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers stared down elimination. Each time, they rose to the challenge.

On Sunday night in Game 7, they completed the series comeback with a taut 4-3 win over Atlanta—punctuated by a go-ahead Cody Bellinger homer in the seventh—and punched their ticket to the World Series.

It wasn't easy. Atlanta went up 2-0 in the series and then claimed a commanding 3-1 edge. The NL East champs had Los Angeles on the ropes. Atlanta led 2-0 going into the bottom of the third in Game 7 and carried a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the sixth.

But the Dodgers showed why they owned the best record in baseball during the regular season and used their depth and enviable talent to outlast a worthy opponent.

Their task, however, isn't complete. This was always going to be a championship-or-nothing season for L.A.

Now, they'll get another crack at a title against the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays. Four more wins, and they'll hoist a Commissioner's Trophy for the first time since 1988.

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Anything less will be an abject failure.

   

Notable Players of the Game

For Los Angeles:

  • CF Cody Bellinger: 1-for-2, 1 R, 2 BB, 1 RBI, 1 HR. After winning NL MVP honors in 2019, Cody Bellinger hit .239 with a .789 OPS during the 2020 regular season. All of that was forgotten, or at least pushed to the way-back burner, when Bellinger launched a mammoth home run in the seventh to give L.A. a lead it would never relinquish. Bellinger appeared to injure his right shoulder during the post-homer celebration, though he played the remainder of the game and caught the final out in center field.
  • PH/DH/2B Enrique Hernandez: 1-for-2, 1 RBI, 1 HR. With Los Angeles trailing 3-2 in the bottom of the sixth, Enrique Hernandez stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter and smacked his second home run of the postseason, igniting the Dodgers dugout and setting up Bellinger's go-ahead blast.
  • LHP Julio Urias: 3 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 0 R. The Dodgers and manager Dave Roberts made this an all-hands-on-deck game pitching-wise. After starter Dustin May threw one inning, L.A. used four more pitchers. The win, rightly, went to left-hander Julio Urias, who slammed the door with three scoreless, hitless innings. Urias is now 4-0 this postseason with a 0.56 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 16 innings.

   

For Atlanta:

  • SS Dansby Swanson: 1-for-3, 1 BB, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 HR. Swanson smacked a solo home run in the second inning to give Atlanta a 2-0 lead and some early momentum. It was overshadowed by Hernandez's and Bellinger's fence-clearing heroics, but for a brief moment it looked like Swanson's dinger could be a key Game 7 turning point.
  • 3B/LF Austin Riley: 1-for-4, 1 RBI. The same could be said for Riley's RBI single in the fourth that scored Ozzie Albies and put Atlanta up 3-2 after Dodgers catcher Will Smith had tied the game in the third with a two-RBI single.
  • RHP Ian Anderson: 3 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 2 K. After throwing 15.2 shutout innings through his first three postseason starts, rookie Ian Anderson lasted just three innings before handing the ball to the Atlanta bullpen. He's surely disappointed with the final result, but the 22-year-old put together a stellar playoff stat line with a 0.96 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 18.2 frames.

   

Why it Won't Mean a Thing for the Dodgers if They Don't Get a Ring

Climbing out of a 3-1 series hole is impressive, especially against a team as dangerous and confident as Atlanta. But let's get real. Los Angeles needs to win it all, or its 2020 season will land with a resounding thud.

The Dodgers have claimed eight straight NL West titles. They've won two pennants in that span. This will be their third trip to the World Series in four years.

In 2017, they lost a heartbreaking seven-game Fall Classic to the Houston Astros. In 2018, they lost in five games to the Boston Red Sox. Both teams were subsequently punished by MLB for sign-stealing shenanigans in their championship seasons.

The Dodgers can cry foul with good cause, but the fact remains: Houston and Boston got the trophies, and L.A. didn't.

Now, after falling in the division series round to the eventual champion Washington Nationals in 2019, the Dodgers get another crack at a ring. 

They're equipped for the task. Their pitching staff led the NL in ERA in the regular season, and their offense paced baseball in runs scored. They added superstar Mookie Betts to an already-potent lineup. 

They have few, if any, weaknesses on paper. Now, they have to prove it on the field against the AL champs.

They'll face a Rays team that posted the best record in the American League. Tampa Bay isn't loaded with household names. But in dispatching the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees and Astros through the first three rounds, they've continued their winning formula of pitching and defense and lead all postseason clubs with 25 home runs.

It will be an extreme David vs. Goliath matchup from a monetary standpoint. The Dodgers boasted the game's second-highest payroll this season, while the Rays checked in at No. 28.

But in terms of talent, Tampa Bay can hang with Los Angeles. It should be a hard-fought series.

The Dodgers can spend Sunday night celebrating their eke-it-out win over Atlanta. But the next test begins Tuesday back at Globe Life Field, and the boys in blue had better be ready.

"It's kind of World Series-or-bust every year," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told reporters at the outset of the playoffs.

It could also be title-or-bust for Roberts himself if he wants to keep his job. His questionable decision-making with ace Clayton Kershaw in Game 4 of the NLCS may be temporarily forgotten after Game 7's triumph. But if his team again falls short, expect calls for Roberts' ouster to grow loud this winter.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Speaking of Kershaw, he'll turn 33 in March. His days as baseball's most dominant pitcher are already in the rearview. The three-time Cy Young Award winner will only get so many opportunities to win a title and bury his October demons once and for all.

The Dodgers have the financial resources and enough young talent on the roster and in the minor league pipeline to keep contending annually for the foreseeable future.

But simply contending isn't going to cut it. They need to get it done this time—no excuses. 

If not, everything they did in the regular season and playoffs—including the comeback against Atlanta—won't mean a thing.

   

All statistics current as of Sunday and courtesy of MLB.com.