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Dodgers defeat Rockies to clinch sixth straight NL West title

LOS ANGELES -- They fell 10 games below .500, then roared back into contention. Their star closer suffered a heart scare, their ace pitcher dealt with back issues and their promising young shortstop was lost for the season, but their unrivaled wealth of depth, talent and resources made up for it. They struggled to hit with runners in scoring position and could never find the ideal setup reliever, but they mashed home runs at an alarming rate and had enough starting pitchers to help late in games.

The 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers are a bizarre, enigmatic, boisterous, supremely talented marvel.

Somehow, once again, they are also division champions.

The Dodgers claimed their sixth consecutive National League West title with a 5-2 victory over the Colorado Rockies in a tiebreaker game on Monday afternoon, getting another excellent outing by young pitcher Walker Buehler and a couple of two-run homers from Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger to capture their 92nd win in Game 163.

"We went through a lot of downs this year; a lot more downs than we expected," Bellinger said. "But we have a really, really good team."

The Dodgers (92-71) will now have home-field advantage against the Atlanta Braves in the National League Division Series, which doesn't begin until Thursday. The Rockies (91-72) must travel to face Jon Lester and the Chicago Cubs from Wrigley Field in the NL wild-card game on Tuesday, an elimination contest that will be started by Kyle Freeland.

The Dodgers -- 16-26 on May 16 -- are only the sixth team in history to win the division in the same season that saw it fall 10 games below .500.

"A lot of work," Justin Turner said of what it took. "A lot of work, a lot of tough times, a lot of battling, a lot of adjustments, a lot of conversations to talk about getting better. And a lot of guys in here got better all year long. Couldn't be prouder of a ballclub."

Dave Roberts, the Dodgers' manager, never wavered in his confidence. He declared on April 29, just as the season was beginning to unravel, that his team would sit at the top of the division when the dust settled.

The Dodgers sported a 2½-game lead when they swept the Rockies at home from Sept. 17 to 19. But the Rockies recovered by winning nine of their next 10, forcing the Dodgers to sweep the San Francisco Giants over the weekend to set up this scenario -- which ended in a champagne-soaked Dodger Stadium clubhouse.

"I just believed in our guys," Roberts said, with goggles on his face and a bottle of champagne in his hand. "I just felt that we could overcome anything."

"It's a grateful feeling," said Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, who overcame a balky back and a dip in velocity to deliver a 2.73 ERA in 161⅓ innings. "I feel grateful to get to be a part of this organization. It's not the ultimate prize; obviously we're still searching for that. But not too many organizations can say they've done this six years in a row."

Buehler, the precocious rookie right-hander who does not lack in confidence, sat 98 mph early and wound up allowing only four baserunners through 6⅔ innings. He exited after a two-out walk in the seventh inning, drawing a raucous standing ovation from a crowd of 47,816 that grew in size as the day prolonged.

"This is just the start, man," Buehler said. "We have a long way to go. We have another month to play."

Over his last 12 regular-season starts, which spanned 75⅓ innings, Buehler has allowed only 13 earned runs on 41 hits, issuing 23 walks and striking out 87 batters. The 24-year-old finished his rookie year with a 2.62 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP and a 4.35 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 137⅓ innings.

"I don't know if I can say this on air," Turner said, "but huge set of balls."

"I can't say enough good things about him," said Kershaw, who is expected to start the postseason opener. "You just have to say it behind his back so that he doesn't get too big a head. But it's a really special thing to watch him pitch. His talent level is just -- I mean, it's unbelievable. Some of the best stuff I've ever witnessed."

The Dodgers did just enough against right-hander German Marquez, who was named NL Pitcher of the Month moments before the game.

Bellinger, the reigning NL Rookie of the Year, turned on a 1-0, 95-mph fastball with one on and two outs in the fourth and drove it out to right-center field. With one out and one on in the fifth, Muncy, one of baseball's most improbable performers this season, hammered a full-count, 99-mph fastball out to left-center, giving the Dodgers their NL-leading 235th home run this season.

The defending NL champions finished the regular season with a plus-193 run-differential, by far the best in the NL.

Bellinger believes they're a "dangerous" postseason opponent.

"I think we have one of the best lineups in the whole league," he said. "We proved it today. We hit the long ball and we have good pitching. It's going to be hard to beat us."

The only real concern, perhaps, is Kenley Jansen, who struggled mightily early in the season, then missed time with an irregular heartbeat and has been inconsistence since. He began the ninth by serving up back-to-back home runs to Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story, giving him 13 home runs allowed this season -- four more than the previous two years combined.

But Jansen retired the next three batters, igniting a celebration that was subdued on the field but turned lively inside.

He was all smiles postgame.

"What happened in the ninth?" Jansen asked, repeating a media member's question. "We won the division -- that's what happened."