NLCS Game 5: After 29 years, Dodgers are returning to World Series

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

CHICAGO – After 29 years and an untold number of replays of the astonishing home run that was their last real highlight, the Los Angeles Dodgers have returned to the World Series.

On a mild Thursday night at Wrigley Field, the Dodgers defeated the Chicago Cubs, 11-1, to win the best-of-seven National League Championship Series in five games. They will play the winner of the American League Championship Series – the New York Yankees lead that series, three games to two – in a World Series that opens Tuesday night in Los Angeles.

The Dodgers led Thursday night by 7-0 after three innings, and just as the Cubs had begun to convince themselves they might inch back into a series the Dodgers had once led, three games to none. Enrique Hernandez, the utilityman and occasional starter, hit a solo home run in the second inning, a grand slam in the third and a two-run home run in the ninth in support of ace Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw pitched six innings and allowed one run.

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In the last World Series played at Dodger Stadium, a gimpy Kirk Gibson struck a pinch-hit, two-run, walk-off home run against Oakland A’s closer Dennis Eckersley, the Dodgers won in five, and a generation of Dodgers fans subsisted on that memory, along with a few near misses.

Since then, the Dodgers, once among the most stable franchises in all sports, were sold by the O’Malleys, bought by Fox, bought by Frank McCourt, and bought by Guggenheim. Tommy Lasorda retired, which brought Bill Russell, a little Glenn Hoffman, some Davey Johnson, five years of Jim Tracy, two of Grady Little, three of Joe Torre, five of Don Mattingly, and now Dave Roberts. They’re on their eighth general manager. Their fifth president. Sure, it’s going on 30 years, but that’s a lot of new ideas, new directions, new strategies, and what it got them was nearly three decades of sometimes good, sometimes horrific baseball, and never anything of real substance by late October.

Enrique Hernandez (14) celebrates after hitting a grand slam during the third inning of Game 5 of the NLCS. (AP)

These Dodgers, in their third season under baseball operations president Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi, their second with Roberts as manager, won 104 games, a franchise best since 1953, five years before it moved out of Brooklyn. They swept the Arizona Diamondbacks in the best-of-five division series, then won the first three games of the NLCS before clinching with some authority in Game 5.

It was Wrigley as usual Thursday night, same as ever, crowded and loud and hoping for the best. Former catcher David Ross, a local favorite, tossed the ceremonial first pitch accompanied by his familiar theme song, “Forever Young.” The fans dutifully booed all the proper people, among them umpires and Dodgers they’d heard of. Kyle Schwarber reached his position in left field, removed his cap, and reintroduced himself to the bleachers. Then he danced to “Mosaico Del Cacique,” turning in slow circles and grinning.

The Cubs would play again with their only option being to win. Their recent history said they wouldn’t scare, given they’d won the final three games of the past World Series and, just last week, Game 5 of their division series against the Washington Nationals. Still, it’s a precarious existence, given to variables such as it being Kershaw’s turn to pitch and Hernandez finding his home run stroke.

Jose Quintana started for the Cubs, intent on doing a better job of attacking the strike zone, though he’d walked only two batters and allowed two runs across five innings of Game 1. (Both walks scored.) Then he walked the first batter of the game, Chris Taylor, but took him nine pitches to do it. Cody Bellinger doubled him home. Hernandez, who’d homered 11 times in the regular season and never in 29 previous postseason at-bats, hit the first pitch of the second inning into the basket atop the brick wall in center field. The Dodgers led, 2-0, then, when in the third inning their first four batters reached base. Out went Quintana, in came Cubs reliever Hector Rondon, and on the first pitch of his next at-bat, with the bases loaded, Hernandez homered into the basket in right field. He’d received two pitches, hit two home runs and driven in five. The Dodgers led, 7-0, and a thin Cubs bullpen was in full bloom, and Kershaw had thrown but 27 pitches.

The rest was a lesson in pitching to the big part of the ballpark and measuring Kershaw’s readiness for Game 1 of the World Series. He threw 89 pitches and was removed after six innings with the Dodgers in front, 9-1.

Not long after, before a crowd of 42,735, Ross reappeared, sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” asked for more runs, and shook his fist. Below, the folks would have a little more time to rehash memories of last October, and wish each other well, and promise to catch up again in April.

In a couple innings, the inevitable came, Kenley Jansen on the mound, Willson Contreas at the plate. Dodgers players and coaches massed on the infield, so much behind them, the World Series five days away.