MILWAUKEE — Leave it to a Dodgers general manager to make the definitive, timeless observation about good fortune. “Luck is the residue of design,” the Hall of Famer Branch Rickey said when he ran the franchise in Brooklyn. His successors in Los Angeles can relate.
Consider the seventh game of the National League Championship Series on Saturday night at Miller Park. The Dodgers throttled the Milwaukee Brewers, 5-1, clinching a return trip to the World Series, where they will face the Boston Red Sox, beginning Tuesday. Two of the most pivotal plays were a surprise bunt single by their cleanup hitter — on a full count — and a lunging, lead-saving catch in left field by a player who had started the game at second base.
The rest of the formula came straight from the Dodgers’ recipe: homers by the sluggers Cody Bellinger and Yasiel Puig, and stout pitching, from Walker Buehler at the start to Clayton Kershaw at the end. But the critical oddities went the Dodgers’ way, thanks largely to relentless planning and the payroll to support it.
“We’re deep, we’re versatile, and more and more in the modern era, that’s real important,” Stan Kasten, the Dodgers’ president and chief executive, said in a dry spot of a raucous visiting clubhouse after Game 7. “The last couple of years, that’s how we’ve worked, depth and versatility, using not just the 25-man roster but the 40-man roster. A lot of teams do the same thing, but a lot of breaks went our way.”
A bad break — shortstop Corey Seager’s elbow surgery — forced the Dodgers to trade for Manny Machado; they acquired him from Baltimore in July. The team’s president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, wanted Machado for his power and defense, not for his bunting skills. Machado hit .297 this season with 37 homers — and zero bunt hits.
But Friedman and his lieutenants also knew they were getting the best player available on the trade market, the kind whose talent and intuition separate him from the rest. The Orioles’ manager, Buck Showalter, had told the Dodgers’ hitting coach, Turner Ward, that Machado was a snow leopard.
“And we were like, ‘Why snow leopard?’” Ward said. “He goes, ‘He’s a rare species.’ And he is. He’s a rare species at the plate, the arm that he has in the field, the instincts that he has and the different things that he can do at the plate — he’s rare, he really is, and what he brings to this team is another level.”
Machado startled Ward with his leadoff bunt in the second inning with the Dodgers trailing, 1-0. The two had never discussed the possibility, but the Dodgers had noticed that the Brewers’ starter, Jhoulys Chacin, used an occasional quick pitch in Game 3 to disrupt their timing. They reminded their hitters to be aware of it.
When Machado saw the quick pitch, he responded with the bunt — even on a 3-2 count, when a foul would have meant a strikeout. After the game, Machado suggested he was motivated more by displeasure with Chacin than by strategy.
“You quick pitch, I’m going to be a little quicker,” Machado said, but whatever his reason, his action was sound. Machado scored on Bellinger’s two-run homer and delighted in playing the villain to fans who jeered him for reckless base running in the series.
“I just hear what they say, enjoy it, take it all in,” said Machado, who appeared to make a crude gesture to the fans after his bunt. “They’re always going to boo the best.”
Nobody comes to the park to boo Chris Taylor, a soft-spoken utility player who wears old-fashioned stirrups and came to the Dodgers in a giveaway trade from Seattle in 2016. Taylor started games this season at four positions: second base, shortstop, left field and right field, helping the Dodgers maximize platoon advantages.
Only two Dodgers — Machado and third baseman Justin Turner — played every inning of the N.L.C.S. The rest of the team shifted in and out of the lineup based on matchups, making multiple-position players like Taylor, Enrique Hernandez and Max Muncy essential.
“It’s second nature to us at this point,” said Taylor, who hit .364 in the series. “I can’t remember the last time I started a game at the same position I finished.”
When Hernandez batted for left fielder Joc Pederson in the third inning, he moved to second base and bumped Taylor to left. In the fifth, after Lorenzo Cain’s two-out double, Christian Yelich lashed a deep drive to the left-field warning track. Taylor pursued it on the grass, then realized it was carrying over his head and slicing behind him.
“I kind of had to banana back,” he said, an apt description for the way he contorted his body to pluck the ball from the air. As Taylor slid across the track, with the 2-1 lead secure in his glove, General Manager Farhan Zaidi exulted in his suite.
“I think I set my new personal-record vertical leap jumping up and down after he made that play,” Zaidi said. “To see a guy start the game in the infield, move out there and make a play like that, that’s just a testament to the flexibility and versatility and talent of this team.”
The play unplugged Miller Park and suffocated the Brewers. Over the final four innings, Ryan Madson, Kenley Jansen and Kershaw fanned seven of 13 hitters and allowed just one to reach base.
The 5-1 final was the same score as in Game 7 of the World Series last Nov. 1, when the Dodgers fell at home to the Houston Astros. That time, a splashy trade acquisition, starter Yu Darvish, let them down.
This time, a star import sparked the Dodgers with small ball and a role player saved them with a twist. Luck was on their side, just the way they planned it.
“It’s a team that doesn’t have ‘easy’ in the playbook,” Friedman said. “We like to do things the hard way. But it’s an extremely talented group and one who’s really very focused on winning four more games.”