A Thrilling Wild-Card Win Sets Up a Division Series for the Ages

LOS ANGELES — Nobody was hotter than the Cardinals as they thundered down the stretch of the 2021 season. St. Louis won 17 games in a row at one point, setting a franchise record and streaking into the postseason.

But with the embers still sizzling from a highly entertaining National League wild-card game here in Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night, Chris Taylor’s bottom-of-the-ninth, two-out, two-run homer that sent the Dodgers to a heart-thumping 3-1 victory served as a reminder that the Dodgers had been just as hot in the season’s final months.

While attempting to chase down San Francisco and avoid the embarrassing possibility of a loss stamping them with one-and-done status as an encore to their World Series title in 2020, they went 45-15 over their final 60 games.

They also finished the regular season by winning their final 15 consecutive home games, a franchise record.

Wednesday’s win made it 16 in a row, and counting. The Dodgers will now open as dramatic a division series as baseball has had in quite some time on Friday in San Francisco, the first time the ancient-rival clubs have faced each other in the postseason since 1889, when the Brooklyn club of the American Association, a predecessor of the Dodgers, faced the National League’s New York Giants in what was then billed as a World Series.

Games 1 and 2 of the division series between the modern Giants and Dodgers are Friday and Saturday in San Francisco’s Oracle Park. Then the Dodgers will look to make it 17 consecutive home wins in Game 3 on Monday.

“I think it’s great,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said shortly after the champagne sprayed in the clubhouse, something that was forbidden last year during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s just what baseball wants, the Giants and the Dodgers.

“It’s one of the greatest rivalries in sports, and it’s happening.”

The Dodgers finished 106-56 this year, a second-place record that inspired a great deal of debate. How unfair was it that a 106-win team, a club with the second-best overall record in baseball, could see its season potentially wiped out with one loss?

And what about the Giants? They went 107-55 and now must face the 106-win Dodgers in a division series rather than the National League Championship Series?

With talking points, perceived slights and history around every turn, it is a matchup that had people arguing before it even came to fruition.

Farhan Zaidi, the Giants’ third-year president of baseball operations, was hired away from the Dodgers, where he was the general manager under Andrew Friedman. The intrastate rivalry is in full force among fans. But there are also unmistakable bonds between the teams that shine through. They just get put on ice for a few days whenever these two face each other.

“I think it’s great for baseball,” Roberts said. “They think a lot of the way we think as far as getting platoon and matchup advantages. There’s a lot of familiarity, which makes it fun, even more challenging.

“It’s going to be a great series. It’s going to be a fantastic series.”

The closest the West Coast versions of these ancient franchises have come to meeting in the postseason came in 1962, when they tied for first place in the National League and the Giants won a best-of-three tiebreaker for the right to advance to the World Series, where they lost to the Yankees.

In 1951, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants had also tied for first and played a best-of-three series. The Giants won that one as well, on Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world.”

This year’s N.L. West race was not decided until the final day of the season. Over their final 29 games, the Giants went 23-6 and the Dodgers 22-7.

“They beat us, but now we have the opportunity to get them where we want them,” said the Dodgers’ Max Scherzer, whose gritty four and a third innings Wednesday night put the Dodgers in position to keep their season alive.

The start wasn’t vintage Scherzer, but it was enough. His command was not as sharp as usual and, after giving up a first-inning run, he said he was “on pins and needles” at every turn.

The Cardinals had struck quickly when the leadoff man Tommy Edman roped a base hit to right, stole second, moved to third on a fly ball and then raced home on a wild pitch.

The Dodgers tied it at 1-1 when Justin Turner led off the fourth by launching a hanging, 75-mile-per-hour Adam Wainwright curveball into the left-field seats.

It stayed at 1-1 over the course of five innings, through nine combined relief pitchers, several pinch-hitters and two starting pitchers — Scherzer (four and a third innings, one run, three hits, three walks and four strikeouts) and Wainwright (five and a third innings, one run, four hits, two walks, five strikeouts) — reluctant to leave the game when their managers signaled to the bullpen.

“I don’t think it was the most popular decision, but it probably made for good TV,” St. Louis Manager Mike Schildt quipped.

The capacity crowd of 53,193 spent much of the 4-hour-15-minute game on its feet hoping to will the Dodgers to victory. Then, in the bottom of the ninth, Cody Bellinger, a former winner of the National League Most Valuable Player Award who has struggled badly all season, worked a walk from a 2-2 count against the lefty reliever T.J. McFarland to set the stage for Taylor, who had entered the game in the seventh inning.

Taylor had also been struggling, batting only 7 for 65 over his past 25 games.

“Obviously it’s a little different not starting,” Taylor said. “I was trying to stay ready off the bench, and I knew there was a chance I was going to come in knowing the way we operate.”

In the dugout, with Bellinger at the plate and Taylor in the on-deck circle as the threat of extra innings loomed, Scherzer was standing next to reliever Joe Kelly.

“I looked and Joe and I said, ‘I think Belly is going to get on here and C.T. is going to hit a home run,” Scherzer said, noting that “I actually had a vision for him right there. I’ve played with him, I’ve faced him, and I thought it was the right man for the right spot.”

On a 2-1 count, Taylor unloaded on an 88-m.p.h. slider from Cardinals reliever Alex Reyes. It sounded like a rifle shot in the night, and as soon as the ball left the bat there was no doubt that it was a game-winner.

The Dodgers exploded out of their dugout and Dodger Stadium shook with noise. A big blue mob met Taylor at home plate in celebration and, after several minutes and some time spent pumping his arms to raise the level of crowd noise even higher, Roberts found Taylor and raised one of his arms over his head like a heavyweight champion.

It was fitting, not only for Taylor but for this team and the series it is about to play. In 146 years of National League baseball, only four teams have had a better winning percentage than this year’s 107-55 Giants. The 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates (103-36), the 1906 Chicago Cubs (116-36), the 1907 Cubs (107-45) and the 1909 Pirates (110-42). A record that stellar is what it took to unseat the Dodgers from a string of eight straight N.L. West titles. And even at that, the Dodgers nearly chased them down.

Roberts said before the game that losing the division had caused him to lose a bet with the former San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy, a close friend.

“He had the Giants, I had the Dodgers,” Roberts said. “I lost a dinner and a nice bottle of Bordeaux.”

But with the Cardinals eliminated and the Dodgers getting one more delicious crack at the Giants, Roberts was asked late Wednesday night if he now would ask Bochy to go double or nothing.

“Yes I am,” Roberts said, grinning. “I’m going to shoot him a text tonight. I am, yeah. We’re going to go double or nothing for the series.”

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