PHOENIX – The Los Angeles Dodgers are back to where they’d left themselves a year ago, back in the National League Championship Series, so once again four wins from their first World Series appearance in nearly three decades.
Behind five sturdy innings from Yu Darvish and home runs by Cody Bellinger and Austin Barnes, the Dodgers defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks, 3-1, Monday night at Chase Field for a three-game sweep in the National League Division Series. They will play the winner of the series between the Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals. The Cubs, who eliminated the Dodgers last October on their way to their first World Series title in more than a century, lead that series, two games to one.
Game 1 of the NLCS is scheduled for Saturday at Dodger Stadium.
The Dodgers will play in their second consecutive NLCS, their third in five seasons, and their fifth in 10. They have not been to the World Series since 1988.
In the minutes before the July 31 trade deadline, the Dodgers struck a deal for Yu Darvish, the 6-foot-5 right-hander who will be a free agent at season’s end. The plan was for Darvish to give them wins in the summer and wins and length – they would not be cornered into pitching Clayton Kershaw on short rest – in the fall.
In his 4 ½ active seasons with the Texas Rangers, Darvish made two postseason starts. He pitched well in a wild-card game five years ago against the Baltimore Orioles and lost. He was knocked around last year in the division series by the Toronto Blue Jays, who homered four times in five innings, and lost.
Darvish’s nine starts for the Dodgers produced mixed results. His record was 4-3. His ERA was 3.44. In his final three starts, against the second-tier Giants, Phillies and Padres, his ERA was 0.47, his batting average against was .136 and he struck out 21 batters in 19 1/3 innings. The last of those starts was on Sept. 25, and 14 days later he was sharp with his command and healthy with his velocity.
In two months, the Dodgers endeavored to return Darvish’s delivery to what it looked like in his first three seasons in the big leagues, before Tommy John surgery wiped out his 2015 season. They also suggested he limit his seemingly endless variety of pitches. That is, to throw fewer types of pitches, and to throw them better. On Monday night, he allowed two hits and a run in five innings.
The Diamondbacks returned to Zack Greinke, their ace, who’d started their wild-card win against the Colorado Rockies and did not fare well. Against the Dodgers in Game 3, his first inning was a slog. The Dodgers led 1-0 when Cody Bellinger’s groundout scored Chris Taylor, who’d led off the game with a hard double into the left-field corner. As damaging, perhaps, Greinke was forced to throw 29 pitches, and three times in five batters found himself in full counts.
While the ball wasn’t going exactly where he intended, and the bases got crowded, and his pitch count rose, and the Diamondbacks fans silently fretted, Greinke was dogged. In his first four innings, he walked five batters, allowed two hits, threw most of his pitches from the stretch, received a couple visits from his catcher and one from his pitching coach, and gave up only the one run. He walked off the mound in the middle of the fourth inning having thrown 88 pitches, and still trailing by only a run.
Along came Bellinger in the fifth. The rookie, who’d hit 39 regular-season home runs, had appeared keyed up over his first 12 postseason at-bats. He’d singled once and made 11 outs, six of them by strikeouts, and just two innings earlier, with runners at first and third and one out, had popped out. It was among the at-bats that allowed Greinke to remain upright.
With two out in the fifth inning, however, Bellinger settled himself, worked the count to 3-and-1, and got a slider away. He waited on it and drove it to the left center-field gap, where it landed 416 feet away, in the bleachers. The Dodgers led, 2-0, which seemed like plenty for Darvish.
It wouldn’t quite be that simple. When Daniel Descalso, the No. 7 hitter in the Diamondbacks’ lineup, reached the batter’s box in the fifth inning, Darvish had retired 13 consecutive Diamondbacks, six by strikeouts. On one of Darvish’s few mistakes until then, a 2-and-2 slider that lacked energy, Descalso homered to right field. Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes, whose quality Game 2 at-bats were rewarded by one of his few starts against a right-handed pitcher, homered on Greinke’s second pitch of the sixth inning, his final pitch of the game, and of his season.