With Puig leading the way, Dodgers remind Cubs (and Kershaw) this isn't 2016

LOS ANGELES -- With one out in the Los Angeles Dodgers' half of the fifth inning, things were looking very 2016ish for Clayton Kershaw and his teammates.

Then with one jolt from Yasiel Puig, we were reminded that it's not 2016 anymore, and Kershaw now has more help than ever.

Puig hit his first career postseason homer and drove in a run with a double, and Chris Taylor hit a go-ahead homer in the sixth as the Dodgers beat the Chicago Cubs 5-2 on Saturday in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.

The win ended a five-game skid for the Dodgers in LCS Game 1s and marked only the second time in franchise history the Dodgers have began the postseason with four straight wins.

Puig's performance was further evidence of a talented player who, at the most important time on the baseball calendar, is proving to his teammates that he's a guy on whom they can depend.

"My teammates helped me a lot this year," said Puig, who is hitting .467 this postseason. "My manager and all the coaches, that's the reason I played better this year. I'm so proud of myself, and I want to keep going and do the best I can for my teammates and for myself."

So he's better than ever?

"No, when I was 5 years old, I played better," Puig said. Always the joker.

Now back to that moment in the Dodgers' half of the fifth. It was 2-0, the Cubs on top. Kershaw had pitched fine, but a super-patient Chicago lineup had swung at only 39 percent of his pitches -- the lowest of any opponent this season. Finally, Albert Almora Jr. swung and planted one in the bleachers for a two-run shot.

"It was OK," Kershaw said of his outing. "They battled and got my pitch count up there. They made me fight. Almora put a good swing on a ball that wouldn't have been a big deal if I hadn't fallen behind [Willson] Contreras to start that inning."

It was the fifth homer Kershaw has given up during his two outings of this postseason, more than any Dodgers pitcher has given up during a single playoff year. The press box erupted in typed game narratives about Kershaw's ongoing October foibles.

Part of that was because the lead felt much larger than it was and carried with it a heavy whiff of déjà vu, a reminder of last season, when Kershaw had no margin for error against the eventual champs.

"We just tried to set a tone early against the Cubs," closer Kenley Jansen said. "We understand that they're the champions. They are a really good team. We understand that we won 104 games, but right now, it doesn't matter."

Flashback: In Game 2 of last year's NLCS, Kershaw came through, logging seven shutout innings in a 1-0 L.A. victory. The run in that game scored in the second inning, and it was the last time the Dodgers had scored for Kershaw in NLCS action until the aforementioned Puig jolt. That included the last five innings that night, five innings of Kershaw's Game 6 loss and the first 4⅓ innings on Saturday, stretching the drought to 14⅓ innings.

Back to the present and the key bottom of the fifth. Kiké Hernandez struck out against a rolling Jose Quintana to start the inning. At that point, Quintana had faced the minimum. Meanwhile, Kenta Maeda was throwing in the Dodgers' bullpen, and you figured there was a good chance that Kershaw was done after five innings and 87 pitches. That was the case, as he finished with a no-decision.

"I always want to go as deep as I possibly can," Kershaw said. "I've never had a bad feeling about our bullpen. But realizing that it's one of our strengths, it doesn't change that I want to go as deep as I can. But it's easier to hand the ball off to those guys."

But before we knew for sure that Kershaw was finished, the familiar hallmarks of the 2017 Dodgers -- the NL's top seed, a team that won 104 games this season and swept its division series against Arizona -- re-asserted themselves in a most characteristic way.

First, Logan Forsythe and Austin Barnes waited out Quintana in consecutive at-bats, grinding their way into back-to-back free passes.

"[The walks] were big," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "And even from the beginning, from the first pitch, I thought our at-bat quality was very good. Yeah, those walks got him in the end."

They also brought Puig to the plate.

Boom! Puig sent a twisting drive to left-center and raised his arms in triumph even as the ball bounded off the wall. Forsythe scored. Then Charlie Culberson -- the unexpected starter at shortstop in place of injured Corey Seager -- tied the score with a sacrifice fly, riding the wave of energy Puig had just sent out over Dodger Stadium.

"His energy is infectious," Culberson said. "When I'm on deck and he's up there doing his thing, I love it. I think our guys love it when he's like that. He's a great player, but he's a better player when he's like that."

Patience, depth and power. These things have characterized the Dodgers' offense for months now. In Saturday's game, they got Quintana out after five innings and set up a game of bullpens.

Frankly, that's a battle the Cubs are going to be hard-pressed to win in this series. Even Cubs manager Joe Maddon seems to realize this is a big difference between the teams over last season.

"Right now, I think the biggest difference is we have to get our bullpen in order," Maddon said. "That's probably the biggest difference between both seasons. That we have to be able to hold small deficits or small leads in the middle and then hopefully get to [closer] Wade [Davis] in a positive situation. I think standing out right now, their bullpen is pretty firm, and we have to really get our feet back on the ground."

For the Dodgers' bullpen advantage to pay off, they first needed a lead to protect. That's where journeyman-turned-leadoff-hitter Taylor came in. Taylor greeted a Hector Rondon fastball with a blast to right-center, putting L.A. up 3-2 to lead off the sixth. In doing so, he became the first Dodgers center fielder to put his team ahead with a homer in the sixth inning or later of a postseason game since Duke Snider in the 1952 World Series.

"People use that word 'poise' a lot, but he has poise," Roberts said. "And in big spots, he has the ability to zone in and swing at strikes and take balls. He's done that all year for us. So to get that big homer to right center really didn't surprise us. Just another thing to add to his special season."

With Seager out of the lineup and off the LCS roster, the Dodgers' lineup lacked a little of its usual firepower on paper, but Puig has emerged as a postseason hero with plenty of sizzle to go around.

Leading off the seventh, he sent a soaring fly ball that kept pushing and pushing until Chicago's Kyle Schwarber ran out of room. The ball carried just past the wall in front of the first row of bleacher seats, giving Puig six RBIs in four games this postseason, more than he has had in his four previous playoff appearances combined.

"When I hit it, I think that it's going, but later I see the left fielder say I got it, and I started running," Puig said. "I think the wind helped me a little bit tonight."

As for that battle of the bullpens, it was no contest. The Dodgers tacked on another run in the seventh against a Chicago pen that has been giving up homers by the bushel this October. Meanwhile, Kershaw and relievers Tony Cingrani, Maeda, Brandon Morrow, Tony Watson and Jansen slammed the door, locked it, and threw they key into the Pacific Ocean.

The final 18 Cubs hitters went down in order after Almora's homer, the last four retired by Jansen, the game's best closer. Jansen became the first postseason pitcher to face at least four batters, strike them all out, and record a save.

"I'm ready for it," Jansen said. "Last season I did it and I've prepared myself all season for it. I'm not trying to be a hero, but whatever the team needs me to do, I'm going to be ready to get our team in the best position to win the ballgame."

What has been the explanation for Kershaw's up-and-down postseason career?

Maybe we should be asking why Kershaw has always been expected to shoulder so much of the load. He no longer has to this season, and the Dodgers' revised formula just keeps working and working and working.

That's four consecutive postseason victories and counting for a team that believes this is its season. With each high-stakes game they take, it's getting increasingly difficult to doubt the Dodgers' collective faith. That seemed starkly true on a day that began with the news that Seager, their 23-year-old superstar, was left off the LCS roster because of a sore back.

It was almost as if that, with his teammate ailing, Puig took it upon himself to lift the spirits of everybody crammed into Chavez Ravine.

"Losing Corey is no fun," Kershaw said. "It's one of the best players on our team. Other guys are going to have to step up and we saw that with [Culberson] tonight.

"[Puig's focus has been] so impressive. The talent has always been there, and he goes through stretches where he does this. But for him to sustain it over the course of a whole game, every single pitch of every single at-bat, that's the potential that he has."