Enrique Hernandez propels Dodgers to first World Series since 1988

CHICAGO -- It hasn't been 108 years since the Los Angeles Dodgers last won a World Series, but they are one step closer to erasing their own drought.

After knocking out the defending champion Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series with an 11-1 victory at Wrigley Field on Thursday, the Dodgers are back in the World Series for the first time since 1988, when Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson led the team to a dramatic upset of the Oakland A's.

This is the Dodgers' 11th postseason appearance since then, and their stretch of 10 appearances in a row without a title is an MLB record. That history has been punctuated by four previous losses in the NLCS, including last season when the Cubs beat them in six games, a defeat that prompted ace starter Clayton Kershaw to admit the Cubs were "just the better team."

This year was different. Kershaw was once again on the mound for the Dodgers, but this time trying to pitch his team into the World Series instead of facing elimination. In his five previous NLCS starts dating to 2013, the Dodgers had been shut out three times and scored only six runs -- three of those coming in Game 1 of this series after Kershaw was knocked out.

In this game, the Dodgers scored early and often. Super-sub Enrique Hernandez was the offensive hero, with a solo home run to left-center off Jose Quintana in the top of the second inning and then an opposite-field grand slam to right-center off reliever Hector Rondon in the third that gave the Dodgers a 7-0 lead. Hernandez added a two-run homer in the ninth, ending the night 3-for-4 with seven RBIs.

Kershaw did his part as well, throwing six innings to earn the win. He gave up one run, on a solo homer by Kris Bryant, and three hits. He struck out five and walked one.

Just a few weeks ago, it was difficult to envision the Dodgers going 7-1 in eight postseason games. After a torrid 56-11 run put them on pace to challenge the MLB record for wins in a season, they inexplicably lost 16 of 17 from late August through mid-September, a stretch of ineptitude no playoff team had ever endured. The Dodgers recovered to finish with 104 wins, most in the majors and most for the franchise since it moved to Los Angeles in 1958.

"We learned that we could get through something like that and come out on the other side," manager Dave Roberts said before Game 4. "It was also encouraging to see that guys continued to stay the course as far as the preparation. There wasn't any finger-pointing. We still banded together and stayed focused on winning baseball games."

The Dodgers eliminated the Cubs even though All-Star shortstop Corey Seager, the team's No. 2 hitter, missed the series because of a sore back. Roster depth has been key to the team's success all season. In Seager's absence, Charlie Culberson -- who started only one game at shortstop all season -- started the first two games and Game 5, and Chris Taylor, who had become the team's starting center fielder, took over in Games 3 and 4. Hernandez, a right-handed hitter, has started games at seven positions this season and was in the starting lineup with the lefty Quintana starting.

Taylor and Justin Turner were named co-MVPs of the NLCS.

After losing to the Cubs in the NLCS last year, when injuries had depleted the Dodgers' rotation by playoff time, Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations, knew "depth was going to be a critical factor" for 2017.

"We felt like we were going to have to make some very hard decisions in spring training," he said on the field before Game 4. "It kind of felt like hitting your head against the wall, but those are good conversations to be having."

That depth manifested itself in surprising ways. Taylor, acquired in a minor deal with the Mariners in 2016, actually began the season in Triple-A. Called up later in April, he had never played the outfield in the majors until starting in center field on May 24. He ended up hitting .288 with 21 home runs.

Cody Bellinger also started in Triple-A, but a slew of injuries left the Dodgers desperate for an outfielder and he made his major league debut April 25.

"Honestly, I thought I was going to be a September call-up," he said earlier this week. "I had no expectations to get called up at the time I did. When the Triple-A season started, I wanted to do everything I could to have the front office trust me if they were going to call me up."

Bellinger set a National League rookie record with 39 home runs and doubled in Taylor in the first inning Thursday for the game's first run. Bellinger also singled and scored ahead of Hernandez's homer in the third and singled and scored in the fourth.

On the pitching side, only Kershaw made more than 25 starts, and even he missed 40 days on the DL because of his own back problem. He still finished 18-4 with a 2.31 ERA, good for his fifth NL ERA crown. Closer Kenley Jansen dominated with 109 strikeouts in 68.1 innings and only one blown save.

The biggest surprise has been setup guy Brandon Morrow. The oft-injured veteran also began in Triple-A, not appearing with the Dodgers until May 29. He ended up allowing a meager .213 slugging percentage, best among MLB relievers.

Before Game 4, Kershaw was asked about that 1-16 stretch and said, "I guess you learn that it's probably humbling for us, realizing we're not unstoppable, we're not unbeatable, which was probably a good thing for us."

If you ask the Cubs, however, they might say the Dodgers do look pretty unbeatable right now.