Chris Taylor, Cody Bellinger unlikely heroes as Los Angeles Dodgers walk off with NL wild card over St. Louis Cardinals

LOS ANGELES -- As Wednesday's National League Wild Card Game progressed and the score remained knotted, a singular thought began to gain momentum in the Los Angeles Dodgers' dugout -- in the bottom of the ninth, with the St. Louis Cardinals on the other side.

"We all thought Albert [Pujols] was gonna hit a home run," Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. "It couldn't have been written any better."

Chris Taylor admittedly thought the same thing. But then he saw Pujols and Steven Souza Jr. line out, Cody Bellinger work a walk, and Cardinals reliever Alex Reyes hang a slider out over the plate. Taylor clobbered the pitch for a two-out, two-run walk-off homer, propelling the Dodgers to a 3-1 victory over St. Louis and pushing them into a highly anticipated NL Division Series showdown against the division rival San Francisco Giants.

For a Dodgers team scrounging for offense in the wake of Max Muncy's freakish elbow injury, this was a better result.

Bellinger, the 2019 NL MVP, has navigated through horrific struggles in 2021, finishing the regular season with a .165/.240/.302 slash line in 350 plate appearances. But he reached base three times and stole second base twice with the Dodgers' season on the line. With two outs, none on and the score still tied at 1 in the ninth, Bellinger faced left-handed reliever T.J. McFarland and worked his second walk, setting up an unfavorable matchup for Cardinals manager Mike Shildt.

Bellinger sported a .208 on-base percentage against lefties this season, 134 points shy of the major league average. Putting together that plate appearance, in that situation, was a sign that maybe he is finally feeling right again.

"At this point, it's time to forget the season," Bellinger said. "Just move on to the postseason, help this team win any way you can."

Taylor was an All-Star for the first time this year, but he batted only .121/.212/.190 over his last 22 regular-season games, sustained a neck injury toward the tail end of that stretch and wasn't even in the lineup when his team lacked a premier bat in a win-or-go-home game. Instead, Taylor entered for defense in the seventh inning, made a sliding grab in left field with a runner on in the eighth and came through in the ninth, sending a raucous Dodger Stadium crowd of 53,193 into a frenzy.

Taylor became the first player to hit a postseason walk-off home run in a game started on the bench since Jose Lobaton did it with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013.

"The game honors you," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "He wanted to be in there tonight, but he was ready when called upon."

The 106-win Dodgers also will be without Clayton Kershaw throughout this postseason, but their pitching sets up nicely initially. Walker Buehler will be fully rested to start Game 1 of the NLDS at Oracle Park in San Francisco on Friday, and Julio Urias, who was warming up to pitch the 10th inning had the wild-card game gone to extras, can follow in Saturday's Game 2. Max Scherzer, who battled through spotty command to allow one run and record 13 outs on Wednesday, can be ready on full rest for Monday's Game 3.

The recent contributions of Bellinger and Taylor provide further optimism heading into what promises to be a tight series against the 107-win Giants, giving Roberts the flexibility to play Taylor in center and Bellinger at first and come as close as he can to fielding a lineup at full strength.

As Wednesday's bottom of the ninth continued to play out, Scherzer sat next to Joe Kelly -- the man who relieved Scherzer, getting the Dodgers out of a two-on, one-out jam in the fifth -- and offered up another prediction. He said Bellinger would draw a walk and Taylor would follow with a home run, though Scherzer had Taylor driving a fastball to the opposite field as opposed to pulling a slider to left.

Close enough.

"I had that vision for him," Scherzer said of Taylor. "I've played with him and faced him and seen all this. I was like, 'This is the right man for the right spot, and he's gonna put a good swing on it.' Sure enough, he did."