MILWAUKEE — As Yasiel Puig jubilantly raced around the bases, smacking his legs and flexing his biceps after a critical home run in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, it was hard to imagine that this Los Angeles Dodgers team was 10 games under .500 on May 16 and in third place in its division in August.
For the past six years, the Dodgers, who defeated the Milwaukee Brewers, 5-1, on Saturday for a return trip to the World Series, have been a juggernaut in the N.L. They are consistently among the highest-spending teams in the major leagues, playing in the second-largest market, with marquee stars and an illustrious history.
This year, however, was more of struggle. After many injuries and a sluggish start, the Dodgers rebounded in the second half, finishing with a flourish in September. They led the N.L. in run differential, yet needed a Game 163 to win the N.L. West for the sixth straight season.
“We told everyone not to worry,” said Cody Bellinger, who was named the Most Valuable Player of the series. “We understood the talent that we had. Now we’re here.”
The Dodgers easily dispatched the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs to reach their fourth N.L.C.S. in six years. The surprising Brewers, with a payroll half the size of the Dodgers’, pushed this series to the limit. But the Dodgers’ potent offense, plus a spectacular outfield catch by Chris Taylor, made the difference on Saturday.
Now the Dodgers are on to their 20th World Series, a showdown with the Red Sox that begins Tuesday in Boston. The Dodgers, whose last championship came in 1988, will get a chance to avenge their shortcoming last year, when they won a major league-best 104 games in the regular season but lost to the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the World Series.
“Last year, it felt like a lot of things came easy for us, and we fell one game short,” said third baseman Justin Turner, one of several key Dodgers players who was injured this season. “This year, there was a lot of hurdles to get over. A lot of fighting.”
In the first N.L.C.S. Game 7 since 2012, the Dodgers simply outlasted the upstart and unorthodox Brewers, who led the N.L. with 96 regular season wins.
“It was a magical run, especially in the month of September and into October,” Brewers Manager Craig Counsell said.
The Brewers employed creative pitching strategies against the Dodgers, who had the highest scoring offense in the N.L., and the strategy nearly worked.
But the Dodgers have a deep and talented roster of multipurpose power hitters and a stout starting rotation, plus a relief corps that performed better than expected.
It helped that the Dodgers had mostly neutralized Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, the front-runner for the N.L. Most Valuable Player Award. He delivered his first home run of the series in the bottom of the first, sending a 98-mile-per-hour fastball from Walker Buehler over the right-center field wall.
Miller Park erupted, but the jubilance was soon overtaken.
Leading off the second inning, Manny Machado, the Dodgers’ most talented hitter, worked to a full count against Jhoulys Chacin, the Brewers starting pitcher, who had yet to allow a run this postseason.
Machado surprised even his own teammates by bunting toward third base and darting to first. Criticized earlier in this series for not hustling to first base on a ground ball, Machado logged his fastest home-to-first time of the season, just under four seconds, according to Statcast data.
After the game, Machado said he had bunted because Chacin quick-pitched him.
“You quick-pitch, I’m going to be a little quicker,” he said, adding later, “Anything to win.”
As unconventional as Machado’s bunt was, it made a crucial difference. The next batter, Cody Bellinger, took advantage of Chacin’s uneven command, hitting a fastball over the plate into the second deck in right field. It was the first home run of this postseason for Bellinger, who had 25 in the regular season.
While rounding the bases, Bellinger flexed his right arm in the direction of the Dodgers dugout. Even though he finished 5 for 25 in the series, he had provided the winning run in two games and played strong defense.
Given the urgency of the game, Brewers Manager Craig Counsell pulled Chacin after two innings and sent in his best pitching weapon, reliever Josh Hader. The Dodgers managed only two base runners against him over three innings, which tied his longest outing in the majors. Hader departed after that because, even though he was rested and had thrown only 31 pitches, his velocity had started to dip.
Once Hader left, the Dodgers’ bats again came to life. To lead off the sixth inning, Max Muncy singled off Xavier Cedeno. Justin Turner then singled off Jeremy Jeffress, who was dominant during the regular season but sputtered in the playoffs. After Bellinger reached on a force out, Puig batted with two outs.
Jeffress hung a curveball, and Puig clobbered it over the center field fence for a 5-1 lead. His blast and animated prance around the bases silenced the home crowd.
“We did everything possible,” Machado said. “We played the little game. We hit the long ball like we always have all year.”
But there was perhaps no bigger play than Taylor’s catch in the fifth inning, when the Dodgers were still up by just 2-1. Taylor’s versatility epitomizes his team. He began the season as the center fielder, shifted to shortstop after a season-ending injury to Corey Seager, then moved back to the outfield when Machado was acquired in a July trade.
He started at second base on Saturday, then moved to left field, where he sprinted and stretched to grab a deep fly off Yelich’s bat. Taylor slid to the ground after the catch, holding onto the ball and denying the Brewers, who had a runner at second, a tie game.
“The catch of the year,” Bellinger said.
Puig’s blast an inning later all but ended Milwaukee’s charmed season and pursuit of its first World Series appearance since 1982.
Buehler, the Dodgers’ rookie starting pitcher, coughed up six hits but allowed only one run and struck out seven over four and two-thirds innings. Then Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts leaned heavily on Ryan Madson (one and two-thirds innings) and Kenley Jansen (one and a third).
To close out the victory, Roberts turned to Clayton Kershaw, who had produced a brilliant start in Game 5 on Wednesday and had volunteered to pitch out of the bullpen. After Kershaw struck out Mike Moustakas to end the game, he threw his arms into the air and hugged catcher Austin Barnes. The Dodgers were back in the World Series.