Bellinger’s go-ahead blast puts Dodgers in WS

    ESPN MLB insider
    Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”

ARLINGTON, Texas — Comebacks complete, crises averted, the Los Angeles Dodgers are back in the World Series, determined to do what they couldn’t the last two times they tried: end a championship drought of more than three decades.

Cody Bellingers mammoth seventh-inning home run unknotted a tense, tied game, and Julio Urias vanquished the vaunted Atlanta Braves lineup for the final nine outs in the Dodgers’ 4-3 win in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday night.

Once trailing 3-1 in the series — and down for the first five innings of Game 7 — the Dodgers clawed back with their not-so-secret weapon: the home run. Los Angeles hit 16 in the series, tying an LCS record, and rode Kiké Hernandez’s pinch-hit shot in the sixth, followed by Bellinger’s an inning later, to hand Atlanta its latest sporting gut punch. Urias, typically a starter but pitching in a fireman role, was dynamic over the final three innings and secured the win.

Corey Seager, who dominated the series with five home runs and 11 RBIs, was named MVP of the NLCS.

Now comes the hard part for the Dodgers: four more wins — four wins that proved elusive in 2018 against Boston, were just out of their grasp in 2017 against Houston and last were theirs in 1988, the year Kirk Gibson hit his famous walk-off home run in Game 1 of the World Series.

Since then, the Dodgers have habitually flirted with greatness, winning the last eight NL West division championships and teetering on the precipice of a title. To do so this time, they’ll need to beat the Tampa Bay Rays, who nearly blew a 3-0 lead in the American League Championship Series before holding on against the Astros in Game 7 on Saturday.

The Dodgers foisted on Atlanta another heartbreak courtesy of Bellinger, the reigning NL MVP whose struggles this season relegated him to the No. 6 spot in the lineup this postseason. Reliever Chris Martin, who had carved through the three previous hitters he faced, peppered the outside corner against Bellinger, who spoiled pitches to stay alive with two strikes. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Martin left a fastball over the heart of the plate, and Bellinger hammered it 417 feet to right-center field, a majestic shot that left a pro-Dodgers crowd of 10,920 at Globe Life Field screaming with joy.

The Braves had three cracks at one win and their best starters, Max Fried and Ian Anderson, lined up on full rest for Games 6 and 7. They proceeded to lose all three and still have not been to the World Series since 1999.

Atlanta had its opportunities, too. The Braves scored in the first inning on two walks and a Marcell Ozuna single, then in the second on a Dansby Swanson home run. A two-run single from Dodgers catcher Will Smith off Anderson in the third tied the game. Atlanta followed its first-inning formula, with Austin Riley providing the single to regain the lead, 3-2.

Already there had been chaos. The Braves giving away two outs on a boneheaded baserunning play by Riley and Swanson in the top of the fourth. The Dodgers stranding eight runners in the first four innings, including the bases loaded in the bottom of the fourth. And that madness didn’t relent as the game continued, either.

In the top of the fifth, Freddie Freeman, who would have been series MVP had the Braves won, launched a towering shot off Dodgers reliever Blake Treinen. For the second consecutive day, his back against the right-field wall, his legs splayed in the air, Mookie Betts leapt for an incredible catch, this one saving a home run.

After trading for Betts in February and signing him to a $365 million contract extension, the Dodgers believed they had assembled a roster talented enough to end their 31-year championship drought. That hope lives on, and among Betts and Seager, starter Walker Buehler and the array of live arms — and even Hernandez, the utilityman whose pinch-hit home run off A.J. Minter was the Dodgers’ first to tie a playoff game or put them ahead since Gibson in ’88.

It’s an opportunity for redemption, too. The Dodgers remain chapped about 2017, when they dropped the seventh game to an Astros team that eventually was exposed for cheating with a sign-stealing scheme. While the 2018 Red Sox that beat the Dodgers didn’t participate in nearly as elaborate a system, they likewise were disciplined by Major League Baseball for running afoul of technology-use rules.

These Dodgers’ aspirations have been bigger than the NL pennant since they returned from the pandemic- and labor-induced delay to play a 60-game season. The Dodgers clearly were the best team in baseball during the regular season, going 43-17 and outscoring opponents by 136 runs. Both Los Angeles and Atlanta cruised through their wild card and division series matchups and entered the NLCS undefeated.

From there unfolded a series that until the seventh game hadn’t seen a close, back-and-forth tussle, despite both teams playing well at times. Game 7, on the other hand, won’t be easy to forget.

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