Against all odds, the 2020 baseball season has made it to the World Series, and it arrived there with an epic, sprawling Game 7 in the National League Championship Series that reminded everyone why the sport endured all the tumult of spring and chaos of summer amid a global pandemic:
It was so that we might all experience a night such as this, the Dodgers vanquishing the Atlanta Braves, 4-3, in a Game 7 for the ages. The Dodgers will face the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night in the same building where, Sunday night, they authored an instant classic.
A game of massive momentum swings and how-did-that-happen moments arrived at Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger facing Braves reliever Chris Martin in the bottom of the seventh inning, with two outs, none on and the score tied at 3. On a 3-2 pitch, the eighth of the at-bat, Bellinger crushed a 94-mph sinker into the stands in right, about 15 rows deep.
Having given the Dodgers their first lead of the night, Bellinger dropped his bat exaggeratedly, took six strut-steps toward first, then screamed to his own dugout before commencing his jog around the bases. Arriving at his dugout, Bellinger and teammate Enrique Hernandez unleashed a high-five so violent, Bellinger's shoulder, he said later, popped out of place – forcing him to visit the trainer's room, where it was popped back in place in time for him to play defense.
"Now he knows," Hernandez said, tongue in cheek, "that he can get hurt celebrating with someone that's much stronger than him."
Six outs later, the Dodgers had become the 14th team in history to come back from a 3-1 series deficit – with the final out settling in Bellinger's glove in center field. They will be the NL's representative for the third time in four seasons, having lost to the Houston Astros in 2017 — a title later tainted by a sign-stealing scandal — and the Boston Red Sox in 2018.
"I texted the guys after the game," third baseman Justin Turner said of the aftermath of Game 4, in which the Dodgers lost by eight runs to fall into a 3-1 hole in the series, "and I just said, 'Hey, this is just an opportunity to do something special. Just embrace the moment, win every pitch, bring the energy. The energy they brought every day — battling every pitch, big swings, big plays, big pitches — it was pretty special."
The Dodgers believe this is the best of their eight consecutive division winners — a regular season juggernaut with a .717 winning percentage — but each of the past seven seasons, with one wrenching loss after another, only deepened the sense that they need that elusive World Series title to validate this otherwise dominant era in franchise history.
"It's been a crazy year," Manager Dave Roberts said at the trophy presentation, as groups of Dodgers fans cheered on from the stands. "Guys away from their families. [Protests over] social injustices. . . . These guys have stuck together. We have a lot of work [still] to do. This year is our year! This is our year!"
The Braves, meanwhile, have the look of a team that will be back on this stage soon. They started five players age 23 or younger Sunday, including Ian Anderson, their starting pitcher. Five of their seven games in the series were started by rookies, the other two by 26-year-old ace Max Fried. Next year, they should see the return of 2019 ace Mike Soroka, age 23, who missed most of this season with a torn Achilles'.
"We came up short, but everybody on this team can lay their head on their pillow tonight and know they gave it absolutely everything they had left in the tank," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "It's an emotional time whenever the season ends, especially when it ends like this. But that group in that clubhouse — this is the start of something special for a long time
That makes this loss no less painful. And for the rest of this fall and the bulk of the winter, if not the rest of their lives, the Braves will be haunted by the horror show of base running they put on in Sunday night's fourth inning, when on one play, they somehow managed to run into a pair of outs in the vicinity of third base — a rare blunder that cost them a potentially huge inning and altered the course of the game.
The play Turner made at third base to turn a grounder into a pair of outs was so brilliant, so heads-up, it provided a measure of cover for the Braves: It was less a giant mistake on their part than an all-time-great defensive play by Turner. But to be clear, it was also a colossal mistake.
With runners on second and third and nobody out, and with the Braves leading by a run, Nick Markakis rolled a tapper to Turner, who threw home to catch the runner breaking from third, Dansby Swanson, in a rundown. Swanson tried to stay alive long enough to allow the runner on second, Austin Riley, to move up to third. But in one fell swoop, Turner dove to tag out Swanson, then threw from his knees to third to get Riley. A 5-2-5-6 double play, if you were scoring at home.
"It was huge," Braves Manager Brian Snitker said of Turner's play. "We're normally a good base running team, and we just did some fundamental things wrong."
The Braves still had a one-run lead, and it would survive the fourth and fifth, but not the sixth. That's when the Dodgers' Hernández, pinch-hitting, blasted a solo homer off the facing of the second deck in left-center off a 97-mph fastball from Braves lefty A.J. Minter, Atlanta's fourth pitcher of the night. Tie game.
Both by time of game and accumulated drama, the innings seemed to creep by, each of them oozing with tension. The fourth felt like the seventh, the seventh like the ninth. A crowd of 10,920, limited by novel coronavirus guidelines, made enough noise nonetheless for 40,000 as the innings peeled by. Each frame seemed to bring a heaping scoop of missed opportunities — runners left on base, screaming line drives hit directly at outfielders, huge strikeouts and, in the fifth, the latest Mookie moment.
In their nightmares this winter, if the Braves aren't seeing visions of their own base runners stumbling into outs, they will be seeing Mookie Betts, the Dodgers' electrifying right fielder, stealing runs with one astounding play after another. Sunday night's version: a towering flyball to right off the bat of Freddie Freeman in the fifth that Betts leaped for at the wall and caught, robbing Freeman of a homer. Betts, the most significant player acquisition in recent Dodgers history, made game-saving plays in Games 5, 6 and 7, all of them Dodger wins.
It was the seventh game in seven days for these two teams — a tough pace even in the regular season but an unfathomable and unprecedented crucible in October. Every arm still hanging from a shoulder was available, but in limited quantities and with no promises of effectiveness. The first five innings alone featured 10 walks. But all that traffic on the bases made for some huge individual pitches and moments.
The first three pitchers to climb the mound at Globe Life Field were rookies — Dustin May, the Dodgers' opener; Anderson, the Braves' outstanding right-hander; and Tony Gonsolin, whom the Dodgers hoped to be their "bulk" guy and pitch into at least the middle of the game but who gave them just two innings.
The bullpens at Globe Life Field may have been the least socially distanced places on earth, stuffed full with both the usual reliever-suspects and a handful of additional starters ready for an all-hands-on-deck game. The Dodgers' available arms Sunday included lefty Clayton Kershaw, whose last relief outing was a disastrous appearance in the decisive loss to the Washington Nationals in Game 5 of last year's division series.
It was the Dodgers' fifth pitcher of the night, lefty Julio Urias, who became their mound savior, retiring all nine Braves batters he faced in the seventh, eighth and ninth, stabilizing a game that constantly threatened to get out of hand and allowing the Dodgers to stay away from Kershaw — who now, presumably, will start Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night.
Randy Newman's "I Love LA" blared from the loudspeakers as Dodgers players, now clad in their "World Series" T-shirts and caps, celebrated with their families, with small packs of fans in Dodger blue looking on and cheering. The Dodgers, by virtue of their better record, will be the home team for Games 1, 2 and (if necessary) 6 and 7 in the first neutral-site World Series in history.
"I know we haven't been able to be around family," Betts said of the team he joined this season, after six with the Boston Red Sox. "But I feel like this team is family. We spend so much time together, at the hotel, here at the field. . . . We're always laughing, joking. I couldn't ask for a better group of guys to call family."
Baseball didn't just make it to the World Series — it zoomed and careened and barreled right up to its doorstep on Sunday night. If the next series doesn't provide anything half as exhilarating as that, it still will have all been worth it.