Behind an ace and a castoff, Dodgers foil Braves to earn NLCS trip
LOS ANGELES -- Back in 2011, in the midst of divorce and bankruptcy, budget cuts and public protests, came word that Dodgers owner Frank McCourt was somehow going to pay Juan Uribe $21 million. After all the ensuing jokes, about McCourt digging through the couch cushions of his multiple mansions, reality sunk in that the disgraced owner couldn't even get spending right. Uribe batted .204 in his first season in Los Angeles, and .191 in his second, losing his starting job at third base last summer to Luis Cruz, who isn't even in the major leagues anymore. Mercifully, Uribe reached the final year of the contract in 2013, the final remnant of the McCourt reign.
There was only one decent reason the Dodgers ever gave Uribe that ludicrous contract, and you could trace it back to one unforgettable hit: A three-run homer for the Giants to beat the Rangers in Game 1 of the 2010 World Series. Uribe delivered in difficult moments, dating back to the last inning of the '05 Series for the White Sox, when he snared a pop fly as he crashed into the third-base stands to preserve a victory over the Astros. If L.A. could ever get back to the postseason, Uribe might be a wild card.
Last night everything started, as it has all season for these Dodgers, with Yasiel Puig: A double down the right-field line to lead off the eighth inning, a dramatic fist pump toward the bench, and a chance for Uribe to ... bunt. Los Angeles can thank its lucky buscones that Dominican players never learn to bunt, because Uribe whiffed on his first two attempts. He then told himself to hit a ground ball to the right side. Two pitches later, he plopped a two-run homer into the bullpen beyond the left-field wall, and the classic mid-century ballpark in Chavez Ravine shook with Gibsonian force. The Dodgers led, 4-3, and the Braves wore the shell-shocked expression that has become part of their October uniform. "Why am I bunting him?" L.A. manager Don Mattingly asked himself in the dugout. "Why am I bunting him?"
When Uribe returned to the bench, he retreated to a far corner, and a receiving line formed around him. "It's the postseason," Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez crowed. "That's what we expect." From Echo Park to Arizona, guard your infinity pools. Los Angeles is in the National League Championship Series for the first time since 2009, when the Dodgers issued that fateful press release announcing McCourt's divorce and then lost to the Phillies. They fell hard after that but rose fast, thanks to a new ownership group, a $227-million payroll, and Clayton Kershaw, a left-handed holdover with a rubber arm.
Kershaw grew up in Dallas, his father reading him a children's book about Sandy Koufax, which had to include a chapter on the 1965 Series, when the steely lefty worked once on three days' rest and again on two. After throwing 124 pitches in L.A.'s 6-1 victory in Game 1, Kershaw began lobbying Mattingly to let him start on three days for the first time in his career. The initial response was: "No, no, no, no." As late as Sunday night, the Dodgers claimed they were turning to Ricky Nolasco and handling Kershaw like a Ming vase. But Kershaw is meticulous in his preparation. He lightened his workload between starts. And insurance policy Zack Greinke, 15-4 with a 2.63 ERA in the regular season, was waiting to start Game 5. "This is the postseason," Kershaw said. "I don't want to take it for granted. I might never get to do this again."
"Three days or 30, it doesn't matter," said catcher A.J. Ellis of Kershaw. "He's the best on the planet."
Facing elimination, Atlanta had every incentive to be more desperate than Los Angeles, but the Braves didn't act like it. They were the ones saving their ace, Kris Medlen, in favor of 37-year-old Freddy Garcia, who was released by the Padres in Spring Training and designated for assignment by the Orioles in June. Garcia spent most of this season in the minor leagues -- bouncing from Norfolk, Va., to Gwinnett County, Ga. -- and considered retiring. Atlanta gave him three starts in September, and apparently he convinced the team that he should get one more, in the biggest game of the season against the best pitcher in the sport.
How a journeyman like Garcia could match a Cy Young front-runner like Kershaw is further evidence of October's unpredictability. They both gave up two runs in six innings, though neither of Kershaw's was earned because of two errors by usually steady first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. The Braves took a one-run lead into the seventh inning, but Uribe intervened before Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel could.
The Braves are heading home after another summer surge and fall flop. Baseball's playoffs are becoming increasingly like the NCAA Tournament, where the hottest team prevails, but Atlanta is never chosen. Over the past 12 years, the Braves have made the postseason seven times and still haven't won a series. "It's going to be one of those seasons that you're not going to appreciate for about a couple of weeks," Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "And then you say, 'You know what? It was a pretty darn good team. Pretty darn good season.'" The problem for the Braves is they've been saying that every year. Pretty darn good is not nearly good enough.
This time, Atlanta was the foil for the Dodgers, who will now enjoy all the rest they need leading up to Game 1 of the NLCS. As players raced around the field, high-fiving fans, Kershaw found a familiar one in the home clubhouse. He and Koufax embraced, a pair of rubber-armed lefties five decades apart, one who inspired a children's book and the other who stole a page.