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Dodgers Avoid Potential Pitfall to Give the People What They Want

The defending World Series champions escaped the wild-card game with an instant classic walk-off home run to set up the series everyone wants to see.

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The Dodgers never wanted this. They spent the last six months trying in vain to avoid the exact scenario they found themselves in Wednesday night: a white-knuckle stressfest of an elimination game to begin the postseason. Instead of a quick exit, the four-hour pressure-cooker ended with yet another instantly iconic postseason moment for a franchise with more than a few of them.

Chris Taylor’s two-out, walk-off home run gave Los Angeles more than just a 3–1 win over the Cardinals and a spot in the NLDS. It delivered a crushing blow to the rest of the 2021 postseason field who were no doubt hoping for the reigning champions to be victimized by MLB’s wild-card format and get bounced after just one game. Instead, the stage is set for a historic heavyweight matchup with the Giants that the larger baseball world (outside of St. Louis) wanted to see.

“I just loved the way, coming into this game, no one had a built-in excuse as far as [being in] a one-game playoff or elimination game,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said after the win. “We were prepared to win a ball game.”

The Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate the walk-off two run home run hit by left fielder Chris Taylor (3) against the St. Louis Cardinals during the ninth inning at Dodger Stadium. The Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers celebrate Chris Taylor's walk-off two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning. 

For Major League Baseball, the result couldn’t have been more perfect: The Dodgers are inarguably one of the best two teams in the sport, yet were shoehorned into this game as a result of being stuck in a division with the greatest regular-season team in Giants history. Rather than having the defending champions get eliminated on a bad bounce here or an error there, the league got an instant classic of a game that now pits its top two teams against each other in a best-of-five series.

“It’s what baseball wants: Giants-Dodgers, one of the great rivalries in sports,” Roberts said. “It’s happening.”

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In avoiding a disaster of a loss and keeping their title defense hopes alive, the Dodgers showcased their unrivaled roster depth that makes them the favorites to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy once again.

Max Scherzer—tabbed to start Wednesday’s game over fellow potential 2021 Cy Young Award winner Walker Buehler and 20-game winner Julio Urías—didn’t have his best stuff, but limited the Cardinals to just one run over 4 ⅓ innings. He passed the baton off to a loaded bullpen that used five pitchers who combined for 4 ⅔ scoreless innings with six strikeouts, two hits and one walk allowed.

“I trust those guys,” Roberts said of his army of relievers. “The pitching staff, the run prevention group, front office ... it’s a collective effort as far as trying to put those guys in the best position to have success. Ultimately, the players have got to make pitches and make plays, and they’ve done that time and time again.”

Taylor didn’t even enter the game until the seventh inning, making an impressive sliding catch in the eighth before delivering his game-ending blast in the ninth. For a team with arguably more depth than anyone else in the field, it needed every bit of it to keep its season alive.

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“Obviously it’s a little different not starting the game. I was just trying to stay ready off the bench,” Taylor said. “I knew there was a really good chance I was gonna come in at some point, just the way we operate. I was trying to be ready when [my] number’s called. These are the types of moments that you dream about and work toward, and I’ll be able to look back on this for the rest of my life.”

“He’s obviously a giant piece for us,” third baseman Justin Turner said of Taylor. “He can play anywhere on the field, outstanding defender. He’s a great baserunner, and obviously he’s taken a lot of big swings for us. He’s just a baseball guy. ... His awareness is off the charts, and I couldn’t be more happy for him to take that big swing in the ninth for us.”

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Wednesday served as yet another challenge for a club that’s consistently passed every test they’ve faced along the way. Dating back to last year’s NLCS against the Braves, the Dodgers have now won four consecutive do-or-die games. This time, they withstood a Cardinals team that had won 21 of its last 25 games and entered the postseason as the league’s hottest team.

St. Louis came into the game with a clear plan offensively: work deep counts and get Scherzer out of the game as quickly as possible. Cardinals hitters saw an average of 3.87 pitcher per plate appearance during the regular season, ninth-fewest in the league. They averaged 4.27 pitches per plate appearance against Scherzer on Wednesday, which is 0.18 more than what the league-leading Yankees averaged for the year.

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer (31) reacts as manager Dave Roberts (30) takes him out of the game against the St. Louis Cardinals during the fifth inning at Dodger Stadium.

When Max Scherzer was pulled in the fifth inning, he tried to talk manager Dave Roberts into letting him stay in the game to no avail.

While that strategy worked in getting Scherzer into the dugout, it didn’t yield enough runs. The Cardinals took a 1–0 lead in the top of the first inning after a wild pitch scored Tommy Edman, and that was it. St. Louis left 11 runners on base and went 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position.

“Oh, we had our chances,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “A lot of good at bats on Scherzer, we got him out of there before he could complete the fifth. We got their bullpen, which is really good ... We just couldn’t get that big hit.”

Having survived the struggle of facing elimination before most teams have rid themselves of the playoff jitters, the Dodgers are positioned for another run to the Fall Classic and a shot at becoming the first team in more than two decades to go back-to-back.

“I wouldn’t call it a struggle—that’s exciting. Those are fun games,” Turner said. “You’re locked in on every pitch ... Those games, those moments are exciting, and we’ve been in a lot of them. I think our experience really helps us in those situations.”

Wednesday night could have ended with the defending champs walking off the field in stunned disbelief that their playoff run ended before it really began. Instead, it culminated with Chris Taylor—a bench player turned All-Star turned postseason hero—sending a ball deep into the night as his teammates poured onto the field in celebration.

The Dodgers didn’t want to start the playoffs with an elimination game, but that setup delivered the kind of dramatic moment typically reserved for late October. If that’s any sort of harbinger for what’s to come, the reigning champs will surely be thankful to have gotten a head start on the rest of the field.

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