If the postseason means anything, it means the biggest men on the field can come up as short as the least among them can come up Bunyanesque. You can watch the big men go hammer and tongs at it only to find the last or next-to-last man swung the wrecking ball that counted.
But if you thought a utility man who’d gone seven-for-September (well, seven hits in 71 plate appearances) would send the Dodgers to a National League division series after spending most of the NL wild card game riding the proverbial pine, you should be buying stocks, futures, and lottery tickets.
Infielder-outfielder Chris Taylor was sent into the game to open the seventh in left field, in a managerial double switch, and bat ninth in the order. And in the bottom of the ninth Wednesday night, with two outs, Cody Bellinger on second, and Alex Reyes on the mound for the Cardinals, Taylor with one swing reinforced two inviolable laws.
One was the Biblical admonition about the last being first. The other was Berra’s Law. The truest valedictory for this National League wild card game is that it most assuredly wasn’t over until it was over. It took a man who’d gone from All-Star in the season’s first half to also-ran in the second half, when a neck nerve issue contributed to making him almost literally half the player he’d been from April through July.
The number nine batter sent the Dodgers toward a division series showdown with their lifelong blood rivals, the Giants, with one swing, one two-run homer, and one moment in which the Elysian Fields angels decided the Red Sox deflating the Yankees in the American League wild card game just wasn’t quite enough.
Taylor turned on Reyes’s slider hanging a sliver under the belt and sent the ball about ten rows into the left field bleachers. He also sent Dodger Stadium into a racket that could have been heard practically across the state line separating California from Nevada.
Remember Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck’s ancient holler after broken-bodied Kirk Gibson ended Game One of the 1988 World Series with a home run? Even home plate umpire Joe West—on the threshold of retirement at last—looked as though he wanted for once to come out from behind his cloak of professionalism, and beyond his reputation for inserting himself too much into games, to holler it.
I don’t believe—what I just saw!
Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer believed it. Those who were there swear Scherzer turned to Dodger reliever Joe Kelly in the dugout as Bellinger checked in at the plate, telling Kelly, “I think Belli is going to get on here, and CT is gonna hit a homer.” If that’s true, maybe Scherzer should be buying stocks, futures, and lottery tickets himself.
Bellinger—whose regular season was laid waste by incomplete recovery from shoulder surgery last off-season and more than a few injuries nagging and otherwise including a broken bone or two—wrung himself into a full-count walk. Then, he stole second when Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ grand old man behind the plate, couldn’t find a handle to throw against Bellinger’s big jump off first.
With the next pitch, Taylor made Scherzer into a prophet. Ending a game in which neither side could pry more than a single run out of either Scherzer or the Cardinals’ co-grand old man Adam Wainwright despite neither righthander having anything much resembling their truly vintage repertoires, other than a few tastes of Scherzer’s better sliders and Wainwright’s better curve balls.
“We’re going to need him,” Dodger manager Dave Roberts said about Taylor before the game. “I can’t predict what spot, whether it’s to get a bunt down, take an at-bat, play defense, start a game. I can’t predict that. I do know that he’s one of my favorite players. I trust him as a ballplayer, as a person. We’re going to need him this postseason.”
Need, meet net result. And, the newest member of a distinguished fraternity of modest men who step up immodestly in the postseason when it matters the most.
With the Dodgers’ season on the line—and TBS broadcasters Brian Anderson and Ron Darling having predicted two innings earlier that the game was liable to be won in the final at-bat—Taylor joined the like of Travis Ishikawa, Chris Burke, Aaron Boone, Todd Pratt, and Bucky Dent on the roll of the unlikeliest postseason bombers making the difference in win-or-be-gone games.
“[I]t’s been a grind for me,” Taylor said postgame. “I haven’t been playing my best. So to come through in the ninth, it felt really really good.”
Somehow, some way, Wainwright ground through five and a third innings with only Justin Turner’s leadoff launch to the rear of the Dodger bullpen in the fourth against him. Scherzer didn’t quite last that long. Despite his game-long wrestling matches with the Cardinal lineup, he was none too thrilled to get the hook in the fifth. He wouldn’t even give Roberts the ball as he left the mound.
Post-game, of course, Max the Knife was in his glory, interviewing shirtless and slightly inebriated from the party champagne. And, celebrating with his erstwhile Nationals teammate Juan Soto, who’d been in the field boxes—wearing Dodger shortstop Trea Turner’s Nats jersey, sitting next to Nats hitting coach Kevin Long in Scherzer’s Nats jersey.
“You gotta get rid of this echo,” Scherzer said on camera. “Can’t talk. I’m drunk, whatever.”
For all that the Cardinals made Scherzer wiggle into and out of jams as if it were par for the course, the only run they pried out of him was his own doing, when he wild-pitched Tommy Edman home on 0-2 to Nolen Arenado in the top of the first.
This was a game dominated by full counts, batters unable to cash gloriously positioned baserunners in, even with Scherzer and Wainwright looking like the elders they are on the mound. The Cardinals had the worst of that, going 0-for-11 with men in scoring position against Scherzer and four Dodger relievers—particularly resurgent closer Kenley Jansen, striking out the side in the ninth around Edman’s one-out single and theft of second.
Taylor also ended a too-brief battle between two men who’d gone from first-half boom to second-half bust. Like Taylor, Reyes was an All-Star for his first half. But he’d pitched his way out of the Cardinals’ closing job in the second. Just as Dodger manager Dave Roberts never once lost faith in his veteran Taylor, Cardinals manager Mike Schildt never really lost true faith in his still-young reliever.
Schildt isn’t the only one having Reyes’ back after Taylor broke his and the Cardinals’ backs Wednesday night.
“I just gave him gave him a huge hug,” said Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals’ other grand old man and wild card game starter. “Told him we love him, told him I loved him and gave him another big hug and just told him how special he was as a player and as a teammate, as a person.
“You know, it’s all you can say in a moment like that,” Wainwright continued. “He doesn’t probably want to hear any of it, but it’s all true. He’s a great teammate, is a great player. He’s a great pitcher. He’s a great friend, and I hate seeing anyone go through that, but he’s got an incredible future ahead of him.”
He’ll only have to shake off having thrown the pitch that ended a season in which the Cardinals lost a little too much—including their pitching ace-in-the-continuing-making Jack Flaherty—to the injured list and to deflated expectations for much of the season.
A season in which the Cardinals ironed up when it mattered most and rode a staggering seventeen-game winning streak, not to mention a fine young outfield, a mostly stingy defense overall, mostly solid hitting, and their elder anchorage of Wainwright and Molina, toward the second National League wild card.
The Dodgers might have been humiliated more if they came up short. A 106 game-winning defending World Series winner, settling for the first National League wild card, after they couldn’t quite get that one game past the NL West-winning Giants? There wouldn’t be enough available space to hold all the variations on the implosion theme.
There may not be enough space to hold all the variations of Taylor-made sure to come forth now.