Dodgers Advance as a Classic Series Ends With a Whimper by Brendan Gawlowski October 15, 2021 A pizza stain on the new Armani. A chocolate chip cookie, fresh out of the oven, adorned with nine chips and one cat droplet. The middle five wishes of Elliot Richards. Game 5 of the 2021 NLDS. The Dodgers won 2-1 in as tense and dramatic a contest as we’ve seen all year, one that ended with an inexplicable call from first base umpire Gabe Morales on Wilmer Flores’ check swing. For Los Angeles, it’s a fifth trip to the NLCS in six seasons, a triumph only made sweeter by the circumstances. In vanquishing their rivals, the Dodgers get the last laugh in a brilliantly played season series. Tonight’s game is vindication for Dave Roberts and his lineup choices, redemption for Cody Bellinger, and another line on Hall of Famer Max Scherzer’s remarkable resume. Fans of all stripes were treated to an exquisite contest in nearly every respect. But like most neutrals, that last pitch is stuck in my craw. With two outs, Kris Bryant on first, and Flores at the plate, Scherzer fired a 1-2 slider. Flores started his swing but appeared to check it well in advance of the imaginary and arbitrary breaking point at which a take (usually!) becomes a swinging strike: Or, at least he did in the eyes of most viewers. Flores, for his part, didn’t look particularly nervous when Doug Eddings appealed to first base. And why would he be? Associate Justice Potter Stewart may as well have been talking about check swings when he uttered “I know it when I see it,” and the vast majority of observers outside of the Los Angeles metro area didn’t see it. Morales did, however, and punched Flores out, ending the ballgame. If the moment was a letdown for most spectators, it was positively agonizing for the Giants and their fans. A dream season of staggeringly unexpected success, timely hitting, and Late Night LaMonte, truncated a moment too soon. To be clear, Los Angeles was overwhelmingly likely to win the game at the time Flores tried to halt his cut. If you look at our win expectancy graph, the Dodgers were 90% favorites at the start of the at-bat, and while we don’t have count-specific probabilities, their odds went up as the count shifted to 1-2. The Giants weren’t exactly robbed, at least not in the way that, say, Armando Galarraga was when Jim Joyce denied him a perfect game. They were, however, denied their fair chance. A baseball team gets 27 outs to work with, 81 strikes to scratch out as many runs as possible. If the sport only gave teams 80, the Rangers would have a title on the mantle and Bill Buckner could have lived his final decades in peace. We don’t know what Flores would have done with another chance. He probably would have made an out, and even if he reached, the Dodgers may have won anyway. We’ll never know though, and at the end of such a compelling game and series, it’s a shame. There will be consequences. Already, the Twitterverse is buzzing about automated umpiring and expanding replay to cover check swings; I look forward to these discussions with a zeal normally reserved for root canal appointments. Whatever happens in that arena, I can only hope this doesn’t become a life-altering moment for Morales in the way that bad split-second decisions impacted people like Steve Bartman and Don Denkinger. At the very least, he can expect a loud reception the next time he calls a game in the Bay. Enough about the ending, though. What a game, what a season series! The sport’s two best teams battled evenly all year long. The Giants held the edge in the season series, but by the slimmest of margins at 10-9; meanwhile, the Dodgers held a meager +2 run differential. It was only fitting that what was perhaps the best Division Series matchup of all time would stretch to a fifth and decisive game, and just perfect that they entered the ninth tied 1-1 with an even scoreline across the board. Maybe it would have been best for this meeting to arrive with a trip to the World Series on the line, but better for it to happen too early than not at all. The tension started early, arguably the night before when Dave Roberts reportedly teased Gabe Kapler with a late night text about his plan to start Corey Knebel instead of Julio Urías. Knebel worked his way around a couple of long flies in the first, one of which Buster Posey hit off the brick ball for a double, and Brusdar Graterol threw a shaky but scoreless second to bridge the game to Urías. In a weird role, the southpaw threw well, striking out five in four innings of work. Were it not for a titanic smash from Darin Ruf, the Dodgers would have turned a 1-0 lead over to the back of the bullpen. For his part, Logan Webb dazzled again. Just six years ago, I (twice!) watched him fail to escape the first inning of a short-season ball game. Today, he spun seven brilliant innings against the Dodgers for the second time in a week. The lone blemish on his line came in the form of a Mookie Betts special. Betts, who went 4-4 and had the Dodgers’ first three hits, singled to open the sixth. With a groundball machine on the mound and one double play already on the books back in the first, Betts took off for second on the first pitch to Corey Seager, and made it easily. The decision paid off, as Betts was able to trot home on Seager’s blooper to left two pitches later. In a different world, the decisive moment of this one would have come in the top half of the ninth. Camilo Doval, electric as ever but also a bit wild, faced Bellinger with runners on first and second. Bellinger, of course, has had a miserable season. There are many ways to describe it, but on a recent episode of Chin Music, Kevin Goldstein said that “he’s hit like a pitcher with a little power” and that’s good enough for us here. Notably, his campaign has been defined by a complete inability to catch up to velocity, which seemed a bad match for Doval’s upper-90s gas. The 24-year-old went a different way though, throwing slider-slider-slider-slider. On the fourth try, Bellinger atoned for a lost season with one swing: Bellinger’s single provided the game’s last run, but the remainder of the contest had more than its share of drama. Kapler pulled Doval and brought in Kevin Gausman (for perhaps his final Giants appearance? Man, the end of a season is a ride.) with one out and runners on the corners. Chris Taylor boldly attempted history’s third successful safety squeeze, which ended as prosperously as most of the previous four thousand. Gausman then retired Matt Beaty on a groundout to first that produced a closer-than-expected dash to the base. In the bottom half, Roberts went back to an old habit, hauling in his ace from the bullpen for the final three outs in a make-or-break playoff game. He’s done it with Clayton Kershaw on multiple occasions, and I can’t imagine anyone really believed him when he said Scherzer was unavailable today. His entrance, long a distinct possibility, became inevitable once Roberts pinch hit for Blake Treinen in the seventh. Scherzer’s tidy job in the ninth belies how boldly Roberts handled the late innings. The legend was in vintage form Monday night in Game 3, but had looked shaky over the past couple of weeks, and didn’t command the ball well at all in last week’s Wild Card game. He’s been somewhat dinger-prone in recent years, and entrusting him with a one-run lead on a night when he was already working on short rest was a real gamble. Fortune often favors the bold though, and Scherzer rewarded his skipper. One back-up breaking ball aside, Scherzer looked electric, throwing harder and with more movement than usual. He retired Brandon Crawford on a fly to left, and breezed past a one-out Justin Turner error by striking out LaMonte Wade Jr. and Flores. Who knows whether we’ll remember this alongside all of his other accolades when he finally hangs ’em up. He and his teammates presumably couldn’t care less right now, in much the same way they won’t be bothered at all by the legitimate griping from the San Francisco side. In the haze of the cigars and the redolence of the champagne, it’s hard to have a care in the world.