LOS ANGELES — Those who watched the Dodgers, day after endless day, thought Chris Taylor was their most valuable player throughout most of the 2021 regular season.
He can be useful in the irregular season, too.
The queen on the Dodgers’ chessboard drilled Alex Reyes’ fastball deep to left field, perhaps the only moment in this Wild Card game that wasn’t ambiguous. It was a 2-run shot that rescued the Dodgers, 3-1, in the bottom of the ninth inning, and sent them to San Francisco for a Division Series that, for most of this night, was far from assured.
Taylor was always there with a safety net, when Corey Seager was hurt, when Cody Bellinger was stumped, when Mookie Betts’ hip was keeping him sidelined. His eventual reward was a seat on the bench at the beginning of this game, thanks to matchups and other little footnotes on the company printout. But manager Dave Roberts has been around every day, too. He predicted Taylor would have an impact at some point, and he wasn’t a bit surprised it happened this way.
After Taylor circled the bases and followed Bellinger across the plate, Roberts met him on the grass and held up Taylor’s hand, like a boxing referee’s confirmation.
Certainly this was as splendid and confrontation as the best championship bout you ever saw. Those who think this should have been a best two-of-three have been giving out too many presentation trophies. What can be better than a real live “must game,” an elimination situation that the Dodgers, the last time they played a postseason game in the stadium, didn’t solve?
This one flaked the skin off the whites of your knuckles. The Cardinals scored in the first inning and could have scored more if Max Scherzer, struggling with his stuff, hadn’t been so stubborn. The Dodgers had the bases loaded with one out in the third and Trea Turner at the plate, but his broken-bat grounder became a double play.
Taylor, who replaced A.J. Pollock in left field, went to his knees to glove a wicked line drive by Edmondo Sosa. Paul De Jong, the Cardinals’ shortstop, skied to rob a possible double by Will Smith, one that might well have scored Turner from first base.
It was 1-1 because Justin Turner exploited a soft curve by Adam Wainwright, who was impeccable otherwise, and dumped it into the Dodgers’ bullpen, which is where everything landed in October.
And this time the button-pushing triggered results. The relievers had to get 14 outs and did so without giving up a run and only two hits. Joe Kelly, Brusdar Graterol (a 5-pitch inning), Blake Treinen, Cory Knebel and finally Kenley Jensen all came up aces. Jansen, thrown into a non-save situation, struck out Paul Goldschmidt and then Tyler O’Neill with a high fastball whose pop could be heard in Eagle Rock.
For decades, the Dodgers and Cardinals have portrayed themselves as the franchises who specialize in the Right Way. Drafting, instruction, development and patience are their ideals, although neither is reluctant to sample the free agency debut.
In doing so, they have rubbed against themselves as fiercely as other Red and Blue properties.
Overall, the Dodgers are 1,036-1,033 against the Cardinals. The Dodgers rank third in baseball in alltime win percentage and the Cardinals fourth. The Dodgers have won more league pennants (25-23) but the Cardinals have won more World Series (11-7).
This is not the first year in which the Dodgers have set a record for most victories without an assured playoff berth after 262 games. In 1942 the Dodgers won 104 times and led St. Louis by 10 on Aug. 6. The Cardinals saddled up and started winning, and when it came time to play Brooklyn twice in September, they got wins from Walker Cooper and Max Lanier.
Similar drama pervaded 1946, 1947, 1963, 1986 and 2014. Like Red and Blue antagonists, the Cardinals and Dodgers never seem to find resolution.
Somehow a graduate of Parkway Central High in St. Louis got spun into this history Wednesday.
The hometown team drafted Scherzer in the 43rd round that year, only because a local Cardinals scout Marty Maier imagined the future. Still, it was no surprise that Scherzer honored his commitment to Missouri. By the time he got out, he was the 11th overall pick, by Arizona.
Scherzer wasn’t as sharp here, leaving in the fifth inning with an elevated pitch count and a pained expression as Roberts snatched the ball from his glove.
He was smiling later, like every observant Dodger fan did when Chris Taylor brought his glove and bat into the irregular season.