MILWAUKEE — As Yasiel Puig jubilantly raced around the bases, smacking his legs and flexing his biceps after a critical home run in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, it was hard to imagine that this Los Angeles Dodgers team was 10 games under .500 on May 16.
For the past six years, the Dodgers, who defeated the Milwaukee Brewers, 5-1, on Saturday for a return trip to the World Series, have been a juggernaut in the N.L. They’re consistently among the highest-spending teams in the major leagues, playing in the second-largest market, with marquee stars and a storied history.
This year, however, was more of struggle. After a sluggish start, the Dodgers turned it around in the second half, finishing with a flourish in September. They led the N.L. in run differential, yet needed a Game 163 to win the N.L. West for the sixth straight season.
The Dodgers easily dispatched the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs to reach their fourth N.L.C.S. in six years. The surprising Brewers, with a payroll half their size, pushed them to the limit, yet could not stop them. The Dodgers’ potent offense made the difference in the deciding game of this best-of-seven series.
Now they’re on to their 20th World Series, a showdown with the Boston Red Sox that begins Tuesday in Boston. The Dodgers, whose last championship came in 1988, will get a chance to avenge their shortcoming last year, when they fell to the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the World Series.
In the first N.L.C.S. Game 7 since 2012, the Dodgers simply outlasted the upstart and unconventional Brewers, who led the N.L. with 96 regular season wins.
The Brewers employed creative pitching strategies against the Dodgers, who had the highest scoring offense in the N.L. during the regular season, and the strategy nearly worked.
But the Dodgers have deep and talented roster of multipurpose power hitters and a stout starting rotation, plus a relief corps that performed better than expected.
It helped that the Dodgers had mostly neutralized Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, the front-runner for the N.L. Most Valuable Player Award. He delivered his first home run of the series in the bottom of the first, sending a 98-mile-per-hour fastball from Walker Buehler over the right-center field wall, just beyond Puig’s outstretched glove.
Miller Park erupted, but the jubilance was soon overtaken.
Leading off the second inning, Manny Machado, the Dodgers’ most talented hitter, worked to a full count against Jhoulys Chacin, the Brewers starting pitcher who had yet to allow a run this postseason.
Machado unexpectedly bunted the ball toward third base and darted to first. Criticized earlier in this series for not hustling to first base on a ground ball, Machado logged his fastest home-to-first time of the season, just under four seconds, according to Statcast data.
As unconventional as Machado’s bunt was, it helped. The next batter, Cody Bellinger, took advantage of Chacin’s uneven command, hitting a fastball over the plate into the second deck in right field. It was the first home run of this postseason for Bellinger, who hit 25 in the regular season.
While rounding the bases, Bellinger flexed his right arm in the direction of the Dodgers dugout.
Given the urgency of the game, Brewers Manager Craig Counsell pulled Chacin from the mound after two innings and replaced him with his best pitching weapon, reliever Josh Hader. The Dodgers managed only two base runners against Hader over three innings. He departed after the fifth inning because, even though he was rested and threw only 31 pitches, his velocity had started to dip.
Once Hader left the game, the Dodgers’ bats again came to life. To lead off the sixth inning, Max Muncy singled off Xavier Cedeno. Justin Turner then singled off Jeremy Jeffress, who was dominant during the regular season but sputtered this postseason. After Bellinger reached on a force out, Puig batted with two outs.
Jeffress hung a curveball, and Puig clobbered it over the center field fence for a 5-1 lead. His blast and animated prance around the bases silenced the home crowd.
But there was perhaps no bigger play than a run-saving catch in the fifth inning by Chris Taylor, when the Dodgers were still up by just 2-1. Taylor’s versatility epitomizes the Dodgers’ roster. He began the season as the center fielder, shifted to shortstop after a season-ending injury to Corey Seager, moved back to the outfield when Machado was acquired in a July trade.
He started at second base on Saturday, then moved to left field, where he leapt and stretched to grab a deep fly off Yelich’s bat. Taylor tumbled to the ground after the catch, holding onto the ball and denying the Brewers a tie game.
Then Puig delivered in the top of the sixth, all but ending Milwaukee’s charmed season and pursuit of its first World Series appearance since 1982.
Buehler, the Dodgers’ rookie starting pitcher, had coughed up six hits but allowed only one run and struck out seven over four and two-thirds innings. Then Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts leaned heavily on Ryan Madson (one and two-thirds innings) and Kenley Jansen (one and a third).
To close out the victory, Roberts turned to Clayton Kershaw, who had produced a brilliant start in Game 5 on Wednesday and had volunteered to pitch out of the bullpen. After Kershaw struck out Mike Moustakas to end the game, he threw his arms up in the air and hugged catcher Austin Barnes. The Dodgers were back in the World Series.
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