- Thanks to a legendary performance by Enrique Hernandez and dominant pitching, the Dodgers clinched the National League pennant with an 11–1 win over the Cubs in Game 5 of the NLCS.
CHICAGO — Corey Seager’s lease expired in early October, so he watched it happen alone in a hotel room in Los Angeles. In Section 25 of Wrigley Field, as the final out settled into the glove of Charlie Culberson, the man who had replaced the injured Seager at shortstop, legendary Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda gazed at the action and beamed. Ten yards to his right, in the visitors’ dugout, reserve outfielder Andre Ethier perched above the bench. When it finally happened—when he came one elusive step closer to the only dream he has ever dreamed—he shot forward in a tangle of raised arms and kicking legs, leaping over the railing and onto the grass.
Yes, for the first time in nearly three decades, the Dodgers are going to the World Series. They beat last year’s team of destiny, the Cubs, in a dominating 11–1 performance that exemplified what makes this group so dangerous, and they did it behind a three-home-run performance from a young man who won much more than a baseball game Thursday night.
The friendliest half-truth in sports is that teams play for the fans. They appreciate the energy their home crowds provide, but it takes a special set of circumstances for a postseason quest to seem driven by the city itself. The 2001 Yankees, the 2004 Red Sox—those players knew that every move they made was imbued with the hopes of a population that hung on every pitch, if for very different reasons. Last year’s magical Cubs run was similar. Fans streamed into Wrigley carrying photos of loved ones who couldn’t quite hold out this long. They gathered outside the ballpark during away games, just to be close to the brick and ivy. The team was composed of ghost-free 20-somethings, but they understood that they were conducting an exorcism.
It’s not like that for the Dodgers and Los Angeles. Half the city can’t watch the games on TV because of a cable dispute that has now dragged on for four seasons. Angelenos failed to vote any of their world-beating team into the 2017 All-Star Game until third baseman Justin Turner won the “Final Vote” to secure a roster spot. It has been 29 years since the Dodgers won, or even made, the World Series, but no one has bothered to come up with a clever theory about a curse. Los Angeles cares about this team—attendance, already league-leading, is up two percent; the Lakers showed Game 5 on the jumbotron during the warm-ups before their season opener. But pitcher Rich Hill had made and then held up a cardboard GET LOUD sign during the NLDS. There are too many waves to surf and movie premieres to attend and NFL teams to ignore for this city to live and die by its baseball team.
The Dodgers are doing this for themselves and for each other. Ace Clayton Kershaw, who spun innings of one-run ball, has suffered from anemic offensive support in his last five NLCS outings: zero, zero, one, zero and five runs. His teammates discussed repeatedly how much they wanted to give him a cushion Thursday. When super-utilityman Enrique Hernández hit those three home runs, the first player who greeted him at the dugout steps was outfielder Joc Pederson, a onetime uber-prospect who had been demoted to Triple A in August and has started one postseason game. Rookie first baseman Cody Bellinger, who went 3–5, spent the night stealing glances at the 35-year-old Ethier, who never got in the game. The kid knew how much Thursday night meant.
Ethier is the longest-tenured Dodger, a two-time All-Star who has seen time in only 38 games over the last two seasons as he battled back and neck injuries. He had played in seven postseasons before this one since debuting in 2006 and never made it as far as an NLCS Game 7.
“I’m probably the losingest postseason player in the last 10 years,” he chuckles.
There were times he was unsure he would make it eight. As he missed the first five months of the season with a herniated disc, his teammates played .689 baseball, at one point winning 51 of 60, the best stretch of that length in 105 years. Where do I fit in? he wondered.
His teammates answered his question by checking in with him constantly about his rehab, by telling him how much they wanted him back, by ribbing him. (He’s more often the perpetrator than the victim; in the moments after the clinch, he turned to Bellinger and sighed exasperatedly. “It’s about time you did something!” Ethier told the National League rookie home run king.) After years as a star, he made the roster as a pinch hitter and backup outfielder. He doesn’t care. He just wants to be a part of it. He just wants a chance to win a title. “I owe this organization a lot,” Ethier says, the joy in his voice mixing with something like relief. “This organization changed my life.”
Kershaw, a Dodger since 2008, was similarly emotional, and the people around him were similarly thrilled to give him this moment. “He’s done everything he can individually on the baseball field,” says manager Dave Roberts. “It’s only fitting that he started tonight’s game.”
The way they won it was fitting, too. Kershaw has long been forced to shoulder much of the burden, to the detriment of his back. He has played in six postseasons before this year and pitched on short rest in five of them. A combination of a weak back of the rotation and unreliable bullpen left the team little margin for error on his start days. Last October he started Games 1 and 4 of the NLDS, then put on his spikes, loped out to the bullpen and collected the save in Game 5. This year team president Andrew Friedman traded for Yu Darvish and assembled a relief corps that allowed four hits in 17 innings of work this series. Kershaw hates being pulled from a game early only to watch the bullpen undo his work. On Thursday he ceded the ball to a pair of converted starters—Kenta Maeda and Brandon Morrow—who constitute the bridge to closer Kenley Jansen that this team has long lacked. They combined with Jansen to allow one single in their three innings.
Here too was a key moment: Los Angeles led 9–1 when Roberts shook Kershaw’s hand. Time for the last guy in the ‘pen, right? In a series in which the manager has made all the right moves, he stepped on the Cubs’ throats. This team is relentless.
And that brings us back to Hernández, the superutilityman who played 140 games without a position. It was fitting that he was the hero, the kind of tough guy without a pedigree who has powered these Dodgers. Turner—famously released by the Mets four years ago—and Chris Taylor—a career .296 slugger acquired by Los Angeles last June for a no-name minor leaguer—and Austin Barnes—a backup catcher who seized the starting job two weeks ago—inspire hope in all kids who are sure they’re just a swing change and an opportunity away from a breakout.
Hernández batted sixth on Thursday, and would have been seventh with a healthy Seager. There are no weak spots in the Dodgers’ lineup, as Chicago found out when it issued 28 walks in five games. (Los Angeles surrendered five.) Hernández, who was born in San Juan, plays with PRAY 4 PR scrawled on his cap in white marker. He created and sells PUERTO RICO SE LEVANTA (Puerto Rico rises) T-shirts to raise money for Hurricane Maria relief.
“There’s still guys wearing them for BP,” he says. “That’s awesome, to have their support, for guys to say ‘We have your back’ without even saying anything.”
Hernández played tonight in front of his father, who beat cancer this year. His first shot, a solo number in the second, gave his team a 2–0 lead. His second, a grand slam an inning later, put the game out of reach. The last one, a two-run bomb in the ninth, sent the dugout into hysterics, but not because of the score: His teammates knew, as did he, that one of the Dodgers’ owners had pledged after the second home run to donate $2 million to Puerto Rico recovery efforts if he hit a third.
After Turner and Taylor accepted their joint NLCS MVP awards, they joined their teammates and coaches in the visitors’ batting cage, the only space in 103-year-old Wrigley big enough to hold the celebration they had planned. They dragged a stool into the middle of the cage and invited each person up onto it as they chanted his name and drenched him in Korbel and Budweiser, from Jansen to Friedman to—in absentia—Seager. But first they yelled for Hernández, who soaked in the booze and the moment, his eyes red from champagne and emotion. They have his back. He has theirs.