The Dodgers’ biggest win since 1988

NLDS-Game 5-Los Angeles Dodgers vs Washington Nationals
By Jon Weisman

As I sat watching Clayton Kershaw throwing those pitches in Washington, trying to protect a one-run lead and save the Dodgers’ season, of course my mind hearkened to 1988, when Orel Hershiser was doing the same thing in the 12th inning in New York.

But just as present was 2009, Jonathan Broxton trying to protect a one-run lead and save the Dodgers’ season in Philadelphia.

Part of the problem was I was literally in the exact same seat, in our little half-office at home, watching on the same 13-inch television purchased in an era closer to Tommy Lasorda than Dave Roberts. It was the same moment, the same prayers, the same brain-crushing line between agony and ecstasy.

You’ll say that there’s a big difference between Kershaw and Broxton, and you’re not wrong. But on the other hand, what has Kershaw been in the postseason but Broxton — a pitcher with great regular-season skill who nevertheless never seemed to catch a break when he needed one in the playoffs. When I think of Dodgers since 1988 who have been snakebit in October, those two names are in a class by themselves.

Kershaw, in a way people have finally begun to realize, has been challenging the narrative of himself as a broken man in October. His seven innings of one-run ball in Game 4 of the 2015 National League Division Series, his six strong innings in Game 4 of the 2016 NLDS — all these began turning the wider perspective of Kershaw around to recall his earlier successes, such as his 13-inning dominance against in the 2013 NLDS and his six innings without allowing an earned run in Game 2 of the 2013 NLCS.

When the Dodger bullpen surrendered his seventh-inning lead Tuesday, after it was clear Kershaw had been worked to the bone, for the first time in my memory, the broader sensibility seemed to be one of sympathy for Kershaw rather than judgment.

But still, there we were, Kershaw facing Daniel Murphy — the Matt Stairs and, yes, Carlos Ruiz of this decade, all rolled into one. A single would destroy a dream, a double would drop a nightmare like an anvil.

NLDS-Game 5-Los Angeles Dodgers vs Washington Nationals

Of all things, Murphy popped out. Kershaw would later hint that maybe he, the pitcher who had never had any luck in the playoffs, might have finally found some.

“You know, he’s probably the best hitter in the National League,” Kershaw said. “He was out for, I don’t know how long, for the regular season, and came back in the series and just put the barrel on the ball every at-bat, basically. So it’s a tough out right there. I think thankfully I missed my spot, honestly, and got in on him a little bit and got him to jam.”

There was still one batter to go. The next hitter, Wilmer DiFo was someone half of you hadn’t heard of and the other half of you thought co-starred in “Platoon.” In his big-league career, he had 12 singles, three doubles, one home run, seven RBI. This would be no contest, unless you believe in cosmic jokes much bigger than any of us. And, given the ghosts of Dodger postseasons past, why wouldn’t you?

I lowered my laptop lid and leaned into the old TV, Hershiser on my right shoulder, Broxton on my left, 1988 in my heart, 2009 in my head.

Kershaw threw a curveball. DiFo swung and missed. The ball bounced in the dirt. Kershaw pumped both his fists, then raised his arms almost as he had when he threw his 2014 no-hitter, only still having to wait for Ruiz to pick up the ball and make an accurate throw to first.

It was over. Kershaw had done it. He had done the Hershiser.

“I thank God for being able to be at his side,” Urias said through an interpreter, according to Doug Padilla of ESPN.com. “When I saw him come in the clubhouse and put on his spikes, I knew he was ready to go and I learned a lot about him at that moment. He’s about winning and all that goes through his mind is winning, winning, winning. I’m so glad that everything worked out.”

In the whiteout delirium that followed, my focus returning to the present as the celebration began and I put the delayed finishing touches on my postgame piece, I didn’t think to place the entire game into context until this tweet from my former Variety colleague, Stu Oldham.

Just like that, 28 years of games whirled through my mind. Nothing from the interregnum between 1989 and 2003 would remotely qualify. Then you come to these, the Mt. Rushmore of Dodger games since 1988:

  • Steve Finley’s grand slam clinches the NL West in 2004
  • Jose Lima’s 2004 NLDS shutout, ending an eight-game postseason losing streak
  • The 4+1 Game, September 2006
  • Juan Uribe’s NLDS-winning home run, 2013

Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS tops them all. It tops Uribe, because this one came in an epic game that the Dodgers couldn’t lose. The stakes were higher than the 4+1 Game or even Finley’s slam. And Lima Time, precious as it was, only seemed to forestall the inevitable.

If you watched on Thursday, you watched the greatest Dodger game since Game 1 of the 1988 World Series — which itself was the greatest Dodger game since Game 4 of the 1988 NLCS.

Are there more to come? The Dodgers are certain underdogs to the Chicago Cubs in the upcoming NLCS. That could spell doom … or it could set the stage for more magic.

8 Comments

Jon, great as always. May I add a few thoughts for you to roll over in your head?

1. I thought of Sandy saying that Vin used to go to mass before the World Series and pray there would be no goats, only heroes. I thought of that as Kershaw came in: he has done so well for so long, and is so unfairly maligned for what he has done in the post-season. I wasn’t thinking of this as a Dodger fan. I was thinking of it in this way: if something goes wrong here, please don’t let it be him.

2. I never was or will be an admirer of Tommy Lasorda as a manager, but he also did the greatest managing job I have ever seen during the 1988 post-season. He knew, and neither Davey Johnson of the Mets nor Tony LaRussa of the A’s did, that you can’t run the game the same way in post-season that you can during the regular season. During the regular season, Kershaw wouldn’t have been brought in to do what he did, nor would Jansen have come in in the 7th inning. Dave Roberts deserves admiration for making moves that could have led to incredible amounts of second-guessing. They worked, and I thought they were smart moves even if they did not work. (And no discredit to Dusty Baker–he wasn’t outmanaged.)

3. Roberts bringing in Jansen in the 7th brings to mind the Bill James argument that you shouldn’t bring in your closer to close the game in the 9th, but to close out the opposition when they pose the biggest threat. That would have been the 7th. Now, if Jansen had been a little better and had a few breaks, he might have wheezed through the 9th, but he was on fumes. Well, in the post-season, he isn’t being judged on how many saves he has in the same way that he is during the regular season. All of which means, we need to rethink the save statistic to encourage more moves like this.

Jon great article that brought so many memories of 1988. I saw for the first time last night a glimpse of that team in this current team. We weren’t suppose to beat the mighty mets, or the mighty A’s but we did with that cast of players. Gutsy moves last night to preserve that win but Kershaw’s bulldog move to tell Doc that he was available took him to another level that I had not seen before, even with all his accomplishments prior. I know SI already crowned the cubs but we still got to play the games and I see something in this team. Some magic still to come I believe.

Great stuff Jon, but would you consider replacing Lima Time with 2008 NLDS Game 1? After the Loney grand slam anything seemed possible.

That was a great win – I guess I’d consider it, but it was ultimately a rout with less angst attached, and not a must-win. It’s all kind of beside the point now, anyway.

That was the biggest post season homer for the Dodgers since Gibson’s, but Uribe’s topped that just 5 years later. And frankly Joc’s homer last night is bigger than Loney’s slam.

I had a chance to go to this game. I live in NC and my buddy was driving up to DC and asked if I wanted to go to the game. Regrettably I had to decline due to work and financial commitments.

Sure it would have been amazing to be at that game but I go to spend almost 5 hours with my soon to be 16 year old soon hanging on every last pitch every last swing and every last Ruiz throw to 1B for the win. It was great to be able to watch that with my son. We are both die hard Dodger fans, we were at the NLCS in 09 and we will be in LA for game 4 of the WS. Dodgers will make this happen or us.

I think your right Jon that was probably the best win since 88….sor far…I think more may be in store.

Im spent after last nights game but come tomorrow at 8PM ill be hanging on every pitch….

Being underdogs in this 2016 NLCS, it should set the stage for more Dodger dramatic moments.
I think every win could be something of a drama.

Kershaw = shades of Hershiser. Kudos to Roberts for thinking unconventionally, like Tommy. But as much publicity Kershaw has received, the game really belong to Jensen. His performance should elevate his name to the national stage as one of the top pitchers in the past 4 years.

This team has bite, and Urias, Jensen, Kershaw have shown the fearlessness that we’ve seen in the ’88 staff. Let’s hope other guys grow into their roles quickly.

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