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How the Dodgers avoided familiar a October fate to win their first World Series in 32 years

From down 3-1 in the NLCS to a championship in 12 days

In a bummer of a year, the Los Angeles Dodgers were a bright spot in 2020. But for a moment, it looked like they were following a familiar script in October.

They were the best team in the majors during the regular season in 2020, after having the best MLB record in 2017 and the best NL record in 2019. Despite a best-in-baseball .631 winning percentage over the last four years — a 102-win pace over 162 games — the Dodgers were about to have no championship to show for it. Down three games to one to the Braves in the NLCS, the Dodgers’ season was going to end before they reached their ultimate goal. Again.

This season was supposed to be different. The Dodgers were already prohibitive favorites to win an eighth consecutive division title, but then in February they traded for Mookie Betts, at worst a top-five player in baseball in his prime. They had an embarrassment of riches, and it showed during a pandemic-truncated regular season. The Dodgers won over 70% of their games, they led baseball in runs scored, were second in runs allowed, and outscored their opponents by more than two runs per game, a truly dominant team.

The Dodgers swept their way through the first two rounds of an expanded playoff series, but then ran into some trouble against the formidable Braves, who won three of the first four games in the NLCS. In the sixth inning of Game 5, Atlanta led 2-1, putting the Dodgers just 10 outs away from elimination.

But over the course of the next 50 hours, the Dodgers saved their season.

Game 5 swung in their favor thanks to a wonderful Will Smith vs. Will Smith battle that ended with a three-run home run for the Dodgers catcher, the biggest hit of his young career.

Mookie’s team

Betts, a sublime all-around talent, made his presence felt with game-changing defensive wizardry in three consecutive games. First up was a shoe-top catch in right field, keeping his balance to stay upright enough to throw home, which triggered a replay review of Marcell Ozuna leaving third base too early on a would-be sacrifice fly.

In Game 6, Betts made a leaping catch at the wall to rob Ozuna of extra bases, then in Game 7 he went over the wall to take a home run away from Freddie Freeman.

Betts more than lived up to the hype in his first year in Los Angeles. He impacted the game in just about every way possible on the field, and finished second in NL MVP voting. He also established himself as a leader, exemplified in two ways. First was a locker room speech early in spring training, challenging the team to be great. Then on Aug. 26 in San Francisco, when the Dodgers decided not to play, to protest racial injustice.

“Once Mookie said he wasn’t going to play, that really started our conversation as a team,” Clayton Kershaw said. “We felt the best thing to do to support him was to not play, with him.”

The Dodgers are Mookie Betts’ team, which is a good thing since he’s signed for the next 12 years.

The comeback, continued

Walker Buehler, who had a 1.80 ERA during the postseason, dominated in Game 6 with six scoreless innings, further solidifying his reputation as a big-game pitcher.

They got a home run in Game 6 from Corey Seager, who also hit two home runs in Game 5, and, oh by the way, hit home runs in Games 2 and 3 as well. Seager just kept hitting all year, but in the postseason he was off the charts. He hit .328/.425/.746 with eight home runs, 20 runs scored, and 20 RBI in 18 postseason games, winning both NLCS MVP and World Series MVP.

But even with the comeback, the Dodgers still trailed in the sixth inning of Game 7. It proved the difficulty of winning three games in a row within a series, especially with a pandemic-altered NLCS schedule that saw seven games played in seven days.

Drawing the Dodgers even in the sixth inning was Kiké Hernández, the defensive wizard who plays all over the field and with a flair for dramatic postseason moments. Hernández hit a solo home run off A.J. Minter, on the eighth pitch of the at-bat.

One inning later, another eight-pitch at-bat ended well for the Dodgers, with Cody Bellinger launching a solo homer to give the Dodgers their first lead of the series.

Bellinger had a down year in 2020. There’s no other way to put it. He hit just .239/.333/.455 one year after winning NL MVP in a 47-home-run season. For most teams, Bellinger dropping off a cliff like that would prove disastrous. But the Dodgers were deep enough that they just dropped him to sixth in the lineup, and even in a down year he gave them one of the biggest moments in franchise history.

The Dodgers depth proved to be a strength over the seven-day marathon NLCS, though perhaps not as we might have originally thought. They were the only team in the postseason, outside of maybe Cleveland, with five healthy and productive starting pitchers, though they preferred to use Opening Day starter Dustin May more in short bursts in October. Three of those “starters,” including May, pitched in Game 7, though none stood out more than Julio Urías.

Urías, the left-hander who debuted professionally at age 16, had a sublime postseason. He had a 1.17 ERA with 29 strikeouts and only four walks in 23 innings. He was used in multiple roles, including starts and short relief. He also closed out the NLCS by recording the final nine batters in order, giving the Dodgers their third pennant in four years.

But Urías topped even that in Game 6 of the World Series, just three days after a start, when he retired all seven batters he faced to close out the Dodgers’ first championship since 1988. which will be replayed for years to come.

World Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Six Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The champion

Had the Dodgers succumbed to their 3-1 deficit to the NLCS and lost to the Braves, it would have perpetuated the narrative of Clayton Kershaw, playoff choker. If the Dodgers saw their end in the NLCS, Kershaw’s postseason would have been perfectly fine, with a 3.32 ERA in 19 innings. He won two starts, but lost Game 4 to the Braves, a game that came two days after he was scratched from a start with back spasms.

Everything in Game 4 played out like the horrors of October past for Kershaw. He was kept in the game too long, then saw relievers implode after his exit, exacerbating his own numbers. It would have been a bitter aftertaste to an otherwise resurgent season for Kershaw, who was named to the All-MLB second team.

But his season didn’t end with the NLCS, and we got to see Kershaw win both of his World Series starts. He was 4-1 with a 2.93 ERA in his five postseason starts, and the pure joy on his face was evident after the Dodgers clinched the World Series in Game 6.

“Clayton, when people talk about him, it’s World Series champion first, then future Hall of Famer,” said manager Dave Roberts.

“We won our race, and it’s over. We completed our mission. I think it’s just a feeling of contentment, joy,” Kershaw said after Game 6. “Only one team gets to do it every year, and it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s just a really special thing.”