NLCS Game 7: Puigs Fly

When Yasiel Puig had a tough division series against the Cardinals a few years ago, a Busch Stadium fan trolled him and the Dodgers thus: Dodgers win? When Puigs fly! On Saturday night, Puig helped make sure the Dodgers won when Puigs flew. Or one Puig, in this case. One Puig and a team load of talent that finally overcame the Brewers' smarts and won Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, 5-1 in Miller Park Saturday night.

Down 1-0 in the top of the second, Cody Bellinger snatched the lead back with a mammoth 2-run homer in the top of the second off Brewers starter and loser Jhoulys Chacin. But in the top of the sixth, by which time the game was a bullpen game on both sides, Puig stepped into the batter's box with two on and nobody out and Brewers closer Jeremy Jeffress — the same Jeffress who trolled and then walked back in a hurry that he thought the Dodgers "lucky" to win Game 2 — on the mound.

David Freese, a former postseason hero in his own right who'd come to the Dodgers in a waiver-period deal with the Pirates in August, turned on the bench to Yasmani Grandal, the Dodgers' catcher whose NLCS mishaps threatened to leave the goat horns stuck on his head if the Dodgers didn't win the pennant, as Puig went to work. "This is who you want up," Freese told Grandal.

And with a low liner that rose enough to hit the yellow line atop the center field fence before landing behind it, Puig put Game 7 just enough out of reach that the Dodgers' own bullpen could hold the Brewers at bay the rest of the way. Even if it took closer Kenley Jansen to get four outs from closing out the seventh to moving through the eighth, and Clayton Kershaw — in all hands on deck mode down in the pen — coming out for the ninth to send the Brewers home for the winter with three quick outs including the last two on strikeouts.

Puig couldn't resist a little trolling of his own as he left the batter's box. A little bat flip here, a crotch chop or two there as he ran the bases, and Puig had himself the time of his life. To those who don't know him, it reeks of self-congratulatory showboating. To Freese, who's been his teammate for a little more than two months, it's as natural as coffee with breakfast.

"A lot of guys, including myself, when you succeed, it's more relief than joy," said Freese, the MVP of the 2011 NLCS and the 2011 World Series, whose Game 6-winning home run in that Series, after the Cardinals came back from their final strike of the Series twice, made him a St. Louis hero for life. "I don't think he has relief in him. It's joy. It's pure joy. He's not faking it. It's great. It's admirable, in a sense. A lot of people aren't like him, but man, it helps him."

It didn't do the Miller Park audience any favors. Any more than Dodger left fielder Chris Taylor did them an inning earlier, when he ran down, extended his glove over his head, and caught on the slide Yelich's likely game-tying hit. They'd been admirably sonic all game long until Puig connected. When he crossed the plate, Puig raised his arms and waggled his fingers, not so much to troll as to just wind them up a little bit. Feeling their hostility just made him that much more determined.

Likewise Manny Machado, a non-waiver trade deadline import whose hard-nosed basepath play earned him one fine, turned a force-out into a double play earlier in the set, and made him Public Enemy Number One in Milwaukee. Every time Machado checked in at the plate, the Miller Park booing was probably the loudest of the season. Machado responded in the best way he knew to respond. He let his bat and his baseball smarts do his talking.

Just as he did in the top of the second, when he became the first player in the Show to drop a bunt on 3-2 since 2014. Machado dropped it so perfectly up the third base line that Brewers third baseman Mike Moustakas could have been forgiven if he'd been tempted to gape in inverse admiration. Doing it half an inning after likely National League MVP Christian Yelich sent one of Dodger starter Walker Buehler's very few bad pitches just past a leaping Puig over the right center field fence for the lone Brewer lead of the night, Machado turned the game the Dodgers' way.

"A momentum changer," said Bellinger, who turned on a Chacin fastball five pitches later and drove it into the second deck behind right field to make it 2-1, Dodgers. That plus his Game 4-winning RBI single got Bellinger named the NLCS MVP — despite hitting only a .200/.231/.360 slash line for the set. Both Bellinger and Puig drove in 4 runs throughout the set but Puig had the far better MVP case: his series slash was .333/.364/.619, and he went 3-for-4 in Game 7 while he was at it.

Buehler — the 19th rookie to start a winner-take-all postseason game, and the first since the Red Sox's Daisuke Matsuzaka in the 2007 ALCS — ended up recording seven of the 14 strikeouts Dodger pitching nailed on the night before he was lifted in the fifth. Machado eventually admitted the reason he decided to try the bunt was because he wasn't thrilled over Chacin quick-pitching him. For a bullpen that wasn't supposed to be half as good as the Brewers, the Dodgers' pen men joined Buehler in assuring only two Brewers got as far as second base all night long and none got past it.

For a team with talent to burn but a regular season in which it looked too often as though they wouldn't see the postseason other than watching on television, these Dodgers suddenly looked like they might give the American League champion Red Sox trouble enough in the World Series to come.

They lost their infield star Corey Seager for the season after 26 games, when Seager turned out to need Tommy John surgery. (It happens to position players, too, folks.) They lost Kershaw, their certain Hall of Fame left-hander, to back trouble twice. They lost third baseman Justin Turner to a wrist injury until May, then Turner didn't really begin finding his sea legs until August. Matt Kemp, their prodigal son brought back in an unlikely deal with the Braves, and rumored at first to be making a pit stop en route another team right after that deal, suffered a second half fade after a first half in which he looked like the team's and the league's comeback player of the year. And Jansen dealt with a recurring irregular heartbeat down the stretch.

A year earlier, the Dodgers shot the lights out only to come up short by one game in the World Series. Their conquerors then, the Astros, are gone now. The defending World Series champions managed to overcome a number of injuries to win 103 games on the regular season and the American League West, then sweep the Indians almost embarrassingly in the division series while having to get past accusations that they had an intelligence operation working a sign-stealing scheme. But they weren't able to keep the Red Sox, winners of 108 on the season and conquerors of the 100-game winning Yankees in their division series, from winning four straight ALCS games after losing Game 1.

The Brewers had the National League's best record and entered the postseason with everyone on earth thinking manager Craig Counsell's clever maneuverings hooked around his shutdown bullpen had a real chance to prove too much for the slightly less modernistic Dodgers. But the Dodgers bullpen proved better than advertised. Jansen, Dylan Floro, and Pedro (The New Human Rain Delay) Baez each pitched four or more NLCS innings and surrendered no earned runs; Ryan Madson, who pitched a pair of scoreless Game 7 innings, came out of the set with a 1.50 ERA for it; and, stocky left-hander Julio Urias — who pitched a Game 7 turn after learning his beloved grandmother died the night before — surrendered only one run while striking out three in three and a third total innings, not to mention getting credit for the tight Game 4 win.

The Brewers pen got credit for three wins, the Dodgers four. The full team ERAs were even closer: the Dodgers' for the set was 3.18; the Brewers, 3.15. But for all the talk about the Brewers' pen, be advised the Dodger relievers have a 1.29 postseason ERA so far.

Kershaw, who'd pitched a masterpiece in Game 5 after a none-too-stellar Game 1 start, was in the bullpen from the outset in Game 7 with Dodger manager Dave Roberts having every intention of bringing him in late if the game was close enough. Not feeling that secure about a 4-run lead after needing Jansen to close out the seventh and work the spotless eighth, that's exactly what Roberts did.

The Hall of Famer in waiting didn't exactly sound unnerved about going against the Red Sox in the World Series, never mind opening in Fenway Park. "We know what it's like there, we heard about it," Kershaw deadpanned in the middle of the pennant celebration. "We'll be ready." Kershaw certainly is. He's flipped the postseason narrative that calls him a choker upside down. Except for NLCS Game 1, Kershaw has pitched 16 postseason innings this time around and surrendered only 1 earned run over them.

Also ready will be the Red Sox. Whose manager once played for the Dodgers and, while he was there, once ended an epic 18-pitch at-bat with a 2-run homer, in May 2004. Facing a Dodgers team whose manager once played for the Red Sox and stole the base — with the Red Sox down to their final outs of a prospective ALCS sweep-out — that launched the impossible Red Sox overthrow in that ALCS before winning their first World Series since 1918.

After everything the Dodgers went through just to get here in the first place, don't be too quick to count them out. In fact, don't be too quick to think it'll be something of a short World Series. The Dodgers just finished proving they have what it takes to get past the hardest times on a season, in ways the defending world champion Astros couldn't quite muster. (A circus catch by Andrew Benintendi to end Game 6 by stealing a potential game-winning hit from Alex Bregman didn't hurt, either.) The Olde Towne Team just might have a glorious baseball war on their hands.

They'll have their hands full enough if Puigs fly again.

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