ARLINGTON, Texas -- Comebacks complete, crises averted, the Los Angeles Dodgers are back in the World Series, determined to do what they couldn't the past two times they tried: end a championship drought of more than three decades.
Cody Bellinger's mammoth, seventh-inning home run unknotted a tense, tied game, and Julio Urias vanquished the vaunted Atlanta Braves lineup for the final nine outs in the Dodgers' 4-3 win in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday night.
Once trailing 3-1 in the series -- and down for the first five innings of Game 7 -- the Dodgers clawed back with their not-so-secret weapon: the home run. Los Angeles hit 16 in the series, tying an LCS record, and rode Kiké Hernandez's pinch-hit shot in the sixth, followed by Bellinger's an inning later, to hand Atlanta its latest sporting gut punch.
Urias, typically a starter but pitching in a fireman role, was dynamic over the final three innings and secured the win.
"We never gave up," said Corey Seager, who set NLCS records with five homers and 11 RBIs en route to being named MVP of the series. "This team never quit. We came out every night and expected to win. Tip your cap to that clubhouse and how we responded, how we came back. We always found the energy, found the big play, found the big spark. Whether it was defensively, offensively, pitching, we grinded through that series. It was a lot of fun to be on top of that one."
Now comes the hard part for the Dodgers: four more wins -- four wins that proved elusive in 2018 against the Boston Red Sox, were just out of their grasp in 2017 against the Houston Astros and most recently were theirs in 1988, the year Kirk Gibson hit his famous walk-off home run in Game 1 of the World Series.
Since then, the Dodgers have habitually flirted with greatness, winning the past eight NL West Division championships and teetering on the precipice of a title. To do so this time, they will need to beat the Tampa Bay Rays, who nearly blew a 3-0 lead in the American League Championship Series before holding on against the Astros in Game 7 on Saturday.
"The World Series is the World Series, no matter what year you get there -- '17 happened, '18 happened. We fell short; now we are back," Hernandez said. "The past is in the past. This one feels super special because it is in front of us and it is happening. I am not going to take anything away from the other two, but this one is extremely special. We were able to stay COVID[-19]-free throughout the whole season. ... We are extremely lucky, but it shows how focused we were all about what is at stake. Nobody wanted to put the team at risk in any form.
"We knew that from Day 1 in spring training [our goal] was to win the World Series. We took care of business in the regular season; we took care of business against the Brewers; we took care of business against the Padres; we took care of business against the Braves. It was a little harder than we thought it was going to be, but I am glad we pulled it off."
Hernandez, who arrived at the ballpark for Game 7 wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey, channeled the Lakers legend in his postgame news conference, telling reporters, "The job is not done."
The Dodgers foisted on Atlanta another heartbreak courtesy of Bellinger, the reigning NL MVP whose struggles this season relegated him to the No. 6 spot in the lineup this postseason. Reliever Chris Martin, who had carved through the three previous hitters he faced, peppered the outside corner against Bellinger, who spoiled pitches to stay alive with two strikes. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Martin left a fastball over the heart of the plate, and Bellinger hammered it 417 feet to right-center field, a majestic shot that left a pro-Dodgers crowd of 10,920 at Globe Life Field screaming with joy.
Bellinger confirmed after the game that his right shoulder popped out when he and Hernandez did a Bash Brothers celebration following the home run.
"Not the first time it's happened," Bellinger told ESPN's Scott Van Pelt. "I just had to run back to the training room, and they had to pop it back in real quick. But I felt good. I was good enough to play defense to end the game, that's for sure."
Bellinger caught the final out of the game from his center-field position.
The Braves had three cracks at one win and their best starters, Max Fried and Ian Anderson, lined up on full rest for Games 6 and 7. They proceeded to lose all three and still have not been to the World Series since 1999.
Atlanta had its opportunities too. The Braves scored in the first inning on two walks and a Marcell Ozuna single, then in the second on a Dansby Swanson home run. A two-run single from Dodgers catcher Will Smith off Anderson in the third tied the game. Atlanta followed its first-inning formula, with Austin Riley providing the single to regain the lead at 3-2.
Already there had been chaos. The Braves giving away two outs on a boneheaded baserunning play by Riley and Swanson in the top of the fourth. The Dodgers stranding eight runners in the first four innings, including the bases loaded in the bottom of the fourth. That madness didn't relent as the game continued either.
In the top of the fifth, Freddie Freeman, who would have been series MVP had the Braves won, launched a towering shot off Dodgers reliever Blake Treinen. For the second consecutive day, his back against the right-field wall, his legs splayed in the air, Mookie Betts leapt for an incredible catch, this one saving a home run.
After trading for Betts in February and signing him to a $365 million contract extension, the Dodgers believed they had assembled a roster talented enough to end their 31-year championship drought. That hope lives on among Betts and Seager, starter Walker Buehler and the array of live arms -- and even Hernandez, the utility man whose pinch-hit home run off A.J. Minter was the Dodgers' first to tie a playoff game or put them ahead since Gibson in 1988.
"This was the first time we had our backs against the wall," Betts said. "All season we have been controlling games, controlling series and whatnot. Seemed like we were getting handled a bit early on. We were able to get ahold of everything and ahold of ourselves. Start to fight back, and it shows you the kind of group and type of guys we have. We are never going to give up. Nothing is going to be easy. We will strike fast before you even think about it, and that is what we did."
The upcoming World Series against the Rays provides an opportunity for redemption too. The Dodgers remain chapped about 2017, when they dropped the seventh game to an Astros team that eventually was exposed for cheating with a sign-stealing scheme. Although the 2018 Red Sox team that beat the Dodgers didn't participate in nearly as elaborate a system, it likewise was disciplined by Major League Baseball for running afoul of technology-use rules.
These Dodgers' aspirations have been bigger than the NL pennant since they returned from the pandemic- and labor-induced delay to play a 60-game season.
"To see where we came ... to start with the pandemic and a lot of things going on and guys not with their families and all of the social injustice -- it's been a lot of sacrifices from guys," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said in describing his emotional reaction to leading this group to the World Series. "And guys were uncomfortable, but still to kinda buy in to the Dodgers and what we're doing to win baseball games and to make such a difficult year in some instances a positive and a championship year for the Dodgers and the city of Los Angeles.
"Had our backs against the walls and had to win three games in a row against a very good ballclub. And so there's a lot of things that had to happen, and we did it."
The Dodgers clearly were the best team in baseball during the regular season, going 43-17 and outscoring opponents by 136 runs. Both Los Angeles and Atlanta cruised through their wild-card and division series matchups and entered the NLCS undefeated.
From there unfolded a series that until the seventh game hadn't seen a close, back-and-forth tussle despite both teams playing well at times. Game 7, on the other hand, won't be easy to forget.