The plays and decisions that got the Los Angeles Dodgers back to the World Series

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Down three games to one, on the verge of another cruel postseason exit, Cody Bellinger looked at the Los Angeles Dodgers' lineup card, looked around the room at the men with whom he shares every day in these weird times, and started asking himself rhetorical questions.

"Why can't we win three games in a row?" Bellinger said. "Why not us?"

This was a fair assessment of an unenviable predicament, a natural response. But there was always a better question to ask, one that he could've answered before the Dodgers clinched their third World Series berth in four years by completing their comeback against the Atlanta Braves with a 4-3 victory in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series: Why them?

Here's why.

In every baseball game, there are thousands of decisions. There are minuscule ones -- a fielder choosing to take a step to the right or left, a baserunner taking a slightly bigger lead. There are whoppers -- a manager figuring out how long to keep a pitcher in, a catcher calling a two-strike pitch. And then there are those in between, the ones where instinct and intelligence meet and change the course of history.

It was the fourth inning. The Braves had taken a 3-2 lead. They had teetered in the early innings of Game 7. The Dodgers were hitting the ball hard and stranding runners. And Atlanta, which the night before had seen the Tampa Bay Rays stave off blowing a 3-0 series lead in the American League Championship Series, was endeavoring to do much the same.

Dansby Swanson stood on third base. Austin Riley stood on second. There were no outs. This was their opportunity to blow the game open. Nick Markakis slapped a 90 mph one-hopper at Justin Turner, the Dodgers' veteran third baseman. He was playing deep, the consequence of manager Dave Roberts' decision not to bring the infield in.

Swanson ran on contact. Decision.

Turner threw home. Decision.

Catcher Will Smith chased Swanson back toward third. Decision.

Swanson reversed back toward home as Turner, now with the ball, chased him. Decision.

In the meantime, Riley was having trouble making a decision. The 23-year-old started toward third, stopped halfway and turned back, then, as Turner was diving to barely nick Swanson with a tag -- decision, and almost a catastrophic one -- Riley committed to third.

It was too late, a massive blunder. Corey Seager, the NLCS MVP, was covering third, ready to receive the heads-up throw from Turner, who flipped from belly to back to make another spot-on decision.

"We made some mistakes," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "We shot ourselves in the foot a couple times. It really hurt. And in games like these, the runs are so hard to come by, you pretty much gotta play flawless baseball."

After those early stumbles, as the championship innings approached, with a World Series appearance on the line, that's pretty much exactly what the Los Angeles Dodgers did.

If there's a near-universal criticism of the Dodgers, it goes something like this: Yeah, but they're rich. And, well, looking at the team's TV deal, its payroll, its staff size, its resources devoted to scouting and player development and analytics -- well, it's true. The Dodgers spend money. Unapologetically.

And if that disqualifies them, or makes them pale compared to the Rays, who don't spend money anywhere near the same level, then so be it. The Dodgers will live with that. They'll live with the grievous sin of chasing the best players and landing them.

Because think about it. That's what they did this past winter when they traded for Mookie Betts. Outfielder Alex Verdugo, shortstop prospect Jeter Downs and taking on David Price's contract was the price, and it included some risk, too, because Betts was due to reach free agency after the 2020 season. But come on. The Dodgers weren't the only team with players of that caliber and financial wherewithal to make that deal. They were just the only team willing to.

They had seen Betts in the 2018 World Series. They lost that year to his Boston Red Sox. "We would've beat the Red Sox if we had Mookie Betts," Roberts said, and, well, at the very least it would've been a better series. What the Dodgers knew -- what everyone in baseball knew -- is that Betts is the sort of player who, even when his bat isn't launching balls, can help a team win a championship.

In Game 5, his shoestring catch started a double play that was made possible by Marcell Ozuna leaving early on a tag-up play. (Decision.) In Game 6, Betts leapt at the right-field wall to grab an Ozuna drive primed to go for extra bases. In Game 7, he extended his streak of one-uppery to three.

Fifth inning, Braves still up 3-2. Freddie Freeman, the NL MVP-to-be and would've-been NLCS MVP, launched a Blake Treinen cutter to right. Betts calmly worked toward the fence. He planted his feet, bent his knees, launched himself upward, stretched his arm -- turned himself into a silhouette of athleticism -- and brought the ball back from over the fence.

"The Dodgers made plays," Freeman said. "They got out of a second and third, no outs with a great play by Turner. Mookie robbed my home run. Mookie robbed Marcell the other day. They made the plays."

Betts said it was his favorite of the three fantastic catches. He didn't celebrate quite like he had in Game 6. Almost as if he's so good the spectacular has become ordinary.

"We will strike fast," Betts said, "before you even think about it."

In the fourth inning, when the Braves brought in reliever Tyler Matzek to take over from rookie starter Ian Anderson, Roberts had a decision: pinch hit Kiké Hernandez or stick with Joc Pederson.

Roberts chose to remain with Pederson, even if Hernandez lives to pummel lefties and Matzek's advantage over Pederson was distinct. It was too early. There would be another time, another moment, to deploy Hernandez.

Managing is full of these little decisions, and in Game 7, Roberts nailed almost every one of them -- not just because they worked and the Dodgers won but because process accompanied outcome, because logic informed choice. The same situation as occurred in the fourth inning arrived in the sixth, and it so happened another lefty was summoned: A.J. Minter, who had thrown a career-high 42 pitches two days earlier.

Hernandez was digging the moment. Even if the Dodgers trailed, 3-2, "I guess the stakes, I kind of like it. It feels cool, it feels good," he said. "This is what you dream of as a little kid. You don't just dream of being a big leaguer. You dream about Game 7 of the World Series. This is not the World Series, but it's Game 7."

For the past six years, Hernandez has embodied this new incarnation of the Dodgers. He understands his role. He plays all around the diamond and he punishes left-handed pitching. He might have a position he plays more one year than the next, but that depends as much on others as it does him. The superutility role is one of selflessness. It is always about others.

He accepts that because that's how the Dodgers operate. You'll get your moment. You'll work into a 2-2 count, then foul off a ball, then another, and another, and then Minter will do exactly what every left-hander who faces Kiké Hernandez desperately tries to avoid: feed him a fastball from anything other than an over-the-top delivery. From the side, especially as Minter throws, might as well be a stick of dynamite. Kaboom went Hernandez. When the ball landed 424 feet later, the NLCS was tied.

"That's the most excited I think I've ever been in an entire baseball game," Seager said, "watching him hit that ball."

The comeback, on life support, had its jolt. The Dodgers, wondering why not, had another why.

"Everybody expected us to go to the World Series. We were expecting to get to the World Series," Hernandez said. "Up to the fact that we were down 3-1 in this series, we hadn't really gone through any adversity in the season. That was the one thing. It was time to get it done. First time not just going through adversity, but you had nothing to lose. They are the ones with something to lose. They had a 3-1 lead. They shouldn't lose this series."

They shouldn't have. It's true. The Braves are a very good team, and very good teams with 3-1 leads should finish series. But this is sports, and this is baseball, and should means nothing.

Cody Bellinger should have had a good year. He was the NL MVP in 2019. At 25, he is square in his prime. He batted .239. His slugging percentage shed nearly 175 points. There are explanations -- decisions -- but this game is judged on a binary. You do or you don't. Bellinger, for the most part, didn't.

The seventh inning rolled around. Chris Martin started it by striking out Max Muncy and Smith. Bellinger stepped in. In Game 6, they had faced each other. Bellinger was all over Martin. He fouled off the first five pitches of the at-bat, took a ball and fouled another off before flying out. The last pitch, after a potpourri of sinkers and sliders, was a splitter -- the very sort of off-speed offering that gets Bellinger lunging.

In Game 7, Bellinger's comfort was apparent. He took two balls and two strikes and only then started swinging. Foul. Foul. Foul. Again. Martin had gone sinkers and cutters this whole time, and he went there once more. The splitter was nowhere to be seen. The ball wasn't, either. Bellinger crushed it. Like the previous night against Martin, and like an inning earlier with Hernandez, the at-bat lasted eight pitches. On Sunday, something unreal finally happened on the eighth.

The home run was majestic, a Bellinger special, a gorgeous parabola. The aesthetics were secondary. The Dodgers led 4-3. Bellinger was the second player in postseason history with multiple go-ahead home runs in Game 7s. He'd done it in the NLCS two years ago. The other player: Yogi Berra.

If there was one bad decision made over those final five innings, it came after Bellinger crossed home plate. He leapt in the air for a forearm-bash celebration with Hernandez ... and came down with his shoulder out of its socket.

"I'm good," he told ESPN's Scott Van Pelt following Game 7. "Not the first time it's happened, but I hit Kiké a little too hard and my shoulder popped out. So 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."

We'll know more about Bellinger's shoulder in the coming days, leading up to the first pitch Tuesday, which will be thrown by Clayton Kershaw. And that's only because of another decision, one that might have been the most surprising of all.

It is clear, based on how he talks about Kershaw, that Dave Roberts genuinely, deeply admires and respects him. There is a propensity to conflate such emotions with trust -- to get a job done, to perform. Maybe it's unconscious. Perhaps it's not real. But considering past positions in which Roberts has placed Kershaw, the future Hall of Famer whose playoff performances remain the one bugaboo of his career, one could argue that his decision-making in matters involving the big lefty are subject to a different standard.

Whether Game 7 actually illustrates a shift in his thinking or a temporary moment of clarity might well be seen this week. But Kershaw, even though he spent most of Game 7 in the bullpen, didn't so much as warm up. Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers' longtime closer, typically the sort to whom Roberts giddily hands a 4-3 lead, got loose but never ran through the bullpen door.

The ninth inning, just like the eighth and seventh, belonged to 24-year-old Julio Urias. He is typically a starter, though he has pitched enough in relief over the course of his career -- the Dodgers have babied him since he debuted in the major leagues as a 19-year-old -- that getting the call in the seventh and plowing through a dangerous lineup without so much as a baserunner ... well, it's not entirely surprising. Other than the fact that only one other reliever in a win-or-go-home game has thrown at least three no-hit innings: Pedro Martinez, in Game 5 of the 1999 AL Division Series, when he went six hitless.

This, though? This was for the World Series. This was the thinnest of margins, the scariest of scenarios. One mistake. One wrong decision.

He didn't make either. And it mimicked the rest of the night so chock full of excellence that Seager couldn't choose a favorite moment.

"I don't know if you can pick," he said. "[Turner's] was huge. Being second and third with no outs and getting out of that inning with only giving up one. Mookie taking away a potential homer, another spark. The pinch-hit was awesome. That's the most excited I think I've ever been in an entire baseball game, watching him hit that ball. Then Belli showing up when we needed it, hitting the huge homer. Then Urias at the end of the game and shutting it down. You can't say enough about what this team has done."

Sure you can. And it's simple. All you need to do is ask the right question.

Why them?

That's why.