In sports, the game's biggest moments always seem to find the person most deserving of redemption. It's baseball's version of the circle of life.
That moment fell upon Cody Bellinger on Thursday.
Down in the count, Bellinger choked up on the bat, the leather of his batting gloves, twisting the wood of his Louisville slugger like a baby gripping tightly on it's bottle. He was focused with the writhing intensity of a steady flame on a melting candle.
After three straight sliders against a pitcher that is known for his triple-digit fastballs, his mind told him there's no way he would throw another slider would he?
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That's exactly what San Francisco closer Camilo Doval did, and with one loud swing of his bat, Bellinger silenced a raucous crowd at Oracle Park, while simultaneously exorcising the demons of his 2021 regular season.
Bellinger's ninth inning RBI single knocked in the game-winning run and lifted the Los Angeles Dodgers over the rival San Francisco Giants 2-1 in an epic Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
"Yeah, it was a difficult year for me," said Bellinger after the victory. "I said it before, I learned a lot from the season and now it's the postseason. So I just keep having faith in the Lord and keep having faith in myself and just keep staying in the moment and doing everything that I can to help this team win."
And win they did. With the victory, the Dodgers will advance to their fifth NL Championship Series in six years, in a rematch of the 2020 NLCS against the Atlanta Braves.
The go-ahead run by Bellinger also kicked off a dance party back at Dodger Stadium for the equally euphoric crowd watching in the newly remodeled centerfield plaza back at Chavez Ravine.
"You don't ever think about being that guy. Just when the opportunity is there and the moment is there, you just try to stay simple and stay within yourself," continued Bellinger. "I'm blessed, man. I'm extremely blessed to be able to be in this moment and have this opportunity,"
Maybe it was fate that the moment found Bellinger, or that it found Max Scherzer in a save situation after he was on the other end when his new teammate Clayton Kershaw did it to him in 2016, or that redemption came 70 years after Bobby Thomson's 'shot heard round the world', or that the 24th and final game of the season between the Dodgers and Giants ended on a botched check-swing call just as it did in 13th game, ultimately impacting the NL West division and playoff seeding.
Regardless of whether it was an ironic twist of fate, divine intervention, or just simply baseball, each and every moment of Game 5 was the kind of stuff you dream about as kids playing in the backyard. Dodgers vs. Giants, 131 years of a rivalry filled with respect and hatred, everything riding on what happens next.
But before the Dodgers could come spilling out of the dugout, stumbling on the dirt as they smiled, screamed and hugged each other, there first had to be a beginning to this dream. And trust me, it was a start as much mired in drama and controversy as the finish was.
"We brought the rivalry back to life," said Dodgers' manager Dave Roberts. "Really playing for relevance. Every game could have went either way, and coming down to a Game 5, and the 9th inning, that was great."
Roberts threw the baseball world a curveball hours ahead of the winner-take-all elimination game by announcing that relief pitcher Corey Knebel would start Game 5 as an opener instead of Game 2 starter, and 20-game winner Julio Urias.
"We felt that this gives us the best chance to win," said Roberts before the game about his decision. "I talked to Julio. He's all in on doing it. He's done it in the past, and last year in particular, he thrived."
Urias has indeed thrived in these situations. After allowing just one run in four innings on Thursday, Urias now has a 1.86 ERA in nearly 30 innings in his career pitching out of the bullpen in the postseason.
So ultimately, the opener strategy worked, albeit with a few hiccups. Knebel surrendered a couple long outs to start the game, and dodged a bullet when Buster Posey's 372-foot double missed getting out of the ballpark by a few feet.
"I think in hindsight you can come off looking like making excuses about what happened," said Giants' manager Gabe Kapler. "Darin Ruf had two balls that he smoked on the nose early in the game, Buster Posey's ball just missed going out. That happens. It's part of baseball. So you don't expect all those to go your way."
Next, it was Brusdar Graterol's turn to navigate the dark waters of McCovey Cove and the Giants' lineup in the second inning. After a broken-bat infield single by Kris Bryant, and a bloop hit on soft-contact by Wilmer Flores, Graterol got out of the inning unscathed, leaving six less outs for Urias to get.
"I thought Corey did a really nice job of getting out of the first inning. They took some good swings, but fortunately we got out of it," said Roberts of his opener. "Then, I liked the run that Brusdar had, and for him to put up a zero and get clear of the pitcher's spot, he was able to give Julio a run."
Urias took the Dodgers deeper into the game, but the offense did little against San Francisco starter Logan Webb.
"Webb shoved it again," said Bellinger. "Huge hats off to him. He pitched his butt off two times this series and it's not easy to pitch against a team after you just faced them and he continued to what he did tonight."
The Dodgers finally broke through against Webb in the top of the 6th inning. Mookie Betts hit a one-out single and the 2020 World Series MVP Corey Seager followed with a double down the left field line for the first run of the game.
It would be the only run Webb would allow in the game, as he finished his season with a perfect record of 7-0 with a 1.76 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 15 starts at Oracle Park this season. Unfortunately for Webb, his team lost for the first and only time in his final start.
"I learned that the postseason is a lot of fun," said Webb reflecting back on the five-game NLDS, his first taste of the playoffs in his young career. "The crowd was just awesome. Just being in this spot with our guys. We deserved to be here. Unfortunately, it didn't happen the way we wanted it to end and that really sucks, but this won't be the last time we play them in the playoffs."
Urias gave the run right back when he served up a game-tying moonshot to Darin Ruf that travelled 452 feet to straightaway center. The longest home run of the postseason thus far.
The minor details of the game, like Betts becoming the first player in Dodgers history to go 4-for-4 with a stolen base in a winner-take-all playoff game, or Blake Treinen and Kenley Jansen's scoreless innings of relief to keep the game tied, will all be overshadowed by the finish: Bellinger's game-winning single and the check-swing call that will be talked about for decades.
The Dodgers 9th inning began when Justin Turner took a page from Roger Dorn in the movie Major League and took one for the team. Turner was hit hard by a 100 MPH fastball and simply shook it off and trotted to first base.
Six pitches later, Gavin Lux followed with a single to RF, and Bellinger brought Turner home with his RBI single that sealed the victory.
Before the game, Lux sent Bellinger a video of Kobe Bryant's alley-oop to Shaq in the Lakers 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers. It was an ode to their handshake and prognostication of sorts as Lux set up Bellinger for the slam with the game-winning RBI.
"That's our handshake before the game, we do two claps, and then I throw him an alley-oop and he dunks it," said Lux about the video.
"Props to him for sending me that video," quipped Bellinger. "He hit a single just as well as I hit a single and I just happened to have JT [Justin Turner] on second base."
Minutes later, after Game 3 starter Max Scherzer sprinted to the mound from the bullpen, there was one final sound of the season at Oracle Park: it was a mix of grunts, groans, and agonizing screams. Wilmer Flores struck out on a questionable check swing, ushering in the celebration on the field for the Boys in Blue.
"That was super tough," said Kapler after the loss. "Obviously you don't want a game to end that way. I just think it's a disappointing way to end."
"We've been able to see the replay and it didn't look like he went," said Ruf. "But a check swing earlier in the year helped us out too. So it's kind of funny how it comes down to those two events."
After the game, in the visitor's clubhouse, the relief of the first-ever Division Series between two teams with 100 or more wins crumbled into an unchained celebration of champagne, cheap beer and celebratory toasts.
The history of the Dodgers in one-run games this season was not on their side until the very end, even after Bellinger's go-ahead single, it was still strenuous to breathe a sigh of relief. But the Dodgers are writing a different script this season.
They weren't favored against the 107-win San Francisco Giants. Their odds lowered even more after a shutout loss in Game 1 and another in Game 3 put them on the brink of elimination. They saw all the stats that said their chances of winning the series were slim, they read all the articles about how the Dodgers offense was dead, and how last year's championship deserves an asterisk.
But now the Dodgers have won six straight elimination games dating back to last season. So they deserved to mob each other on the field and dance and drink until the plastic wrap covering their lockers fell to the floor and the carpet was soaked in champagne in San Francisco.
"It's just one step to our final goal," said Scherzer as he walked out of the Dodgers clubhouse wearing ski goggles, his hair and face dripping with alcohol. "We're going to turn the page and get ready for the next series and you can't fully celebrate until you hold up that World Series trophy. Except we can party hard tonight."