When Chris Taylor’s walk-off two-run home run disappeared into Dodger Stadium’s left field pavilion on Wednesday night, the collective catharsis of over 50,000 people was palpable even through a television screen. After more than four tense hours, a city finally had its chance to exhale.
The 2021 Dodgers tied a franchise record with 106 wins, and outscored their opponents by an absurd 269 runs over the course of 162 games. They are one of the best teams the franchise has ever fielded, obscenely well-equipped with talent and depth to win in all phases of the game. They finished the season on a 7-game win streak, scoring 8 or more runs in each of their final 5 games against two of the game’s best pitching staffs. The only previous Dodgers team to win 106 games played just two years ago, in 2019 – that group would win the NL West by 21 games over the Arizona Diamondbacks and comfortably await the NLDS. Generally speaking, such is the reward for winning 100+ games: an opportunity to rest and prepare for October’s inevitable chaos.
This season, no such comfort was available to the Dodgers. They spent very little time in the divisional driver’s seat, constantly biting at the heels of the suddenly record-setting San Francisco Giants. To be fair, such comfort was never afforded to San Francisco either- all the way through August and September, Giants’ TV broadcasts were tense. Seemingly every night, the incredulous voices of Jon Miller and Duane Kuiper would relay the news to the San Francisco faithful: the Dodgers had won again.
When the dust settled, the Giants received the prize they’d fought for and rightly earned: a National League West Division Championship. They’d finally toppled the mighty Dodgers, sending one of the most impressive rosters ever assembled to a one game playoff with the also red hot St. Louis Cardinals. Perhaps the Redbirds, a 90-win team who wasn’t expected to have the opportunity at all, could capitalize on the opportunity to rid Giants’ fans of their nemesis once and for all.
After a broken bat single and a run-scoring wild pitch kicked off the night for St. Louis, it felt like the walls were closing in for the Dodgers. Inning after inning, run scoring opportunities would fall by the wayside in increasingly creative ways. Adam Wainwright caught a scorching line drive to end one inning. Trea Turner hit a ground ball to the one spot on the field he couldn’t and a double play would end a bases loaded opportunity in another. Paul Goldschmidt and Paul DeJong made excellent defensive plays to end two other innings on hits that would have otherwise broken the game open in the Dodgers’ favor.
The game remained tied 1-1 deep into the night, leaving Dodger fans questioning their sanity with each passing inning. After a questionably early hook of Max Scherzer led to a revolving door of bullpen arms entering the game, it felt like a familiar scene for fans who had watched Dave Roberts over-manage his team into elimination several times before. After all, 2020’s championship lacked what Wednesday night put on full display – a city holding its breath in person, collectively begging not to ask “what if?” until the following spring.
This time, they’d get their wish. Every button Roberts pushed turned out to be the right one – each reliever found a way to keep the score where it was, and a savvy defensive replacement of AJ Pollock with Chris Taylor would arguably save the game on Edmundo Sosa’s lineout in the 8th inning.
Taylor’s walk-off home run was an exorcism, even if just for one night. The city’s celebration was laced with relief, and the Dodgers had now earned what they deserved all along: an opportunity to play in the Division Series. Now, for the first time in the rivalry’s long history, the Dodgers and Giants will meet in the Postseason.
Dodgers NLDS vs the Giants: The Rivalry Continues… | MLB Postseason 2021
Friday, October 8
NLDS Game 1 – Dodgers @ Giants, 6:37 pm PT
Walker Buehler (16-4, 2.47 ERA) vs Logan Webb (11-3, 3.03 ERA)
As the Dodgers begin their 5-game series with the rival Giants, they’ll turn to their Postseason Ace and a budding October legend in Walker Buehler. Over 11 previous playoff appearances, Buehler is 3-1 with a 2.35 ERA including 2-0 during last year’s World Series run. He’ll look to build off a strong outing against Milwaukee his last time out when he earned the win pitching 5 strong innings Sunday. More importantly, he’ll be trying to improve upon his worst outing of the season the last time he pitched at Oracle Park on September 5. When it comes to October baseball, Buehler has earned a bit of a reputation dating back to 2018’s World Series runner-up season. They’ll need him to live up to the hype tonight to avoid dropping a crucial NLDS Game 1.
The Giants will counter with Logan Webb, an unexpected ace who represents the 2021 Giants better than just about anyone on the roster. Webb was a below-average major league starter entering this season by really any measure. Last season, his 3-4 record and 5.47 ERA matched his reputation – a run-of-the-mill right-handed pitcher helping out a below-average team by eating a decent number of innings. Now, he’s blossomed into one of the better starting pitchers in the National League. He ranks above the 80th percentile in 6 different measurable categories per Baseball Savant, profiling as a strike-thrower who is excellent at forcing soft contact as well as tempting hitters to chase when he does leave the strike zone. Most impressively, his rate of inducing ground balls ranks 2nd in all of baseball behind only Houston’s Framber Valdez.
The Dodgers will need to be somewhat patient with Webb, but also attack opportunistically. Webb has never appeared in a Postseason game before – if the Dodgers can apply pressure early and often to the young righty, perhaps they can harness the gravity of the moment to shake his confidence.
Saturday, October 9
NLDS Game 2 – Dodgers @ Giants, 6:07 pm PT
Julio Urias (20-3, 2.96 ERA) vs Kevin Gausman (14-6, 2.81 ERA)
Like Walker Buehler, Julio Urias has developed a reputation of reliability when the going gets tough in the Postseason. After closing out both the NLCS and World Series in 2020, Julio’s position in Dodger lore is already secure. This year, the assignment is a bit different for the 25-year old lefty as he’ll be asked to start key games throughout the coming Postseason run. Urias has been remarkably consistent for the Dodgers, especially in the second half of 2021. He was baseball’s only 20-game winner this season, capitalizing on great run support while turning in competitive performances on repeat. If he pitches Saturday night the way he has since early July, the Dodgers will have a great chance in Game 2 at Oracle Park.
He’s opposed by Kevin Gausman, another Giants’ righty who has suddenly seen his career reach its full potential in 2021. Unlike Logan Webb, Gausman has pitched in the postseason before – but not extensively, nor in high leverage. He’s pitched 10 career postseason innings – 8 in 2014 for Baltimore, and 2 in 2018 for Atlanta – while allowing 3 runs. Gausman’s 2021 was a career year and one that saw him in Cy Young contention for most of the first half of the season. Quietly though, regression started to catch up to him as the baseball calendar turned to the second half of the season. After posting monthly ERAs of 2.14, 0.73, and 2.32 through June, his 5.11, 3.16, and 4.64 ERA’s through the season’s final 3 months saw him come crashing down to earth by season’s end. He pitched 6 scoreless innings against the Dodgers on May 30, but has struggled mightily against them in 2 starts since (5 runs allowed over only 8 innings of combined work).
Gausman has done a great job of inducing hitters to chase (92nd percentile) and creates a ton of swings and misses when he’s right. When teams have gotten to him, they’ve hit him hard – he only ranks in the 41st percentile of Average Exit Velocity Against. If the Dodgers can spit on his elite changeup when he leaves it below the zone, they’ll force him upwards over the plate and likely start hitting balls hard from gap to gap.
If the Dodgers can steal a win (or two) on the road this weekend, they’ll set themselves up well as the series shifts to Los Angeles. They’ve won 16 in a row at Dodger Stadium, and are expected to start Max Scherzer on the mound Monday night. Knowing this, a win in Game 1 would shift the pressure to the shoulders of the Giants immediately, finally forcing the division champs onto the ropes after spending 6 months trying. Nothing will come easy against the Giants, but the Dodgers are more than capable. It all starts tonight.