'Nobody said it was gonna be easy': How the Dodgers earned an NLCS Game 7

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The moment of truth came early, in the top of the second. The Los Angeles Dodgers scored three first-inning runs, but the Atlanta Braves followed by loading the bases with nobody out. Sports history is littered with moments like this -- when the desperate team comes out hot, gets deflated when the opponent responds and never fully recovers. The man striving to prevent that on this Saturday afternoon was Walker Buehler. Early on, he knew his off-speed pitches were not sharp. With the game already in the balance, threatening to unravel, Buehler knew what he needed do:

He needed to attack baseball's best fastball-hitting team with fastballs.

Of the 13 pitches that followed, 11 were four-seam fastballs. All were thrown 98 mph or above. Four touched 99. Another reached 100. The result: strikeout, strikeout, groundout. Threat neutralized. Season protected.

"At the end of the day," Buehler said, "that is my best pitch."

The Dodgers, tested like they hadn't been all year, prevailed again with everything on the line, defeating the Braves by a 3-1 score in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. There will be a Game 7. If the Dodgers capture a third straight win, they will prevail from a deficit only 13 baseball teams have ever conquered. And the only way they can -- the only chance they have of navigating through the small samples that tend to randomize outcomes this time of year -- is by believing that who they are is good enough to carry them through it. That eventually their talent will emerge. That their best is better than anybody else's.

Two nights ago, moments after a Game 4 loss put the Dodgers on the brink, a group text began as a way to motivate players for the immense task that awaited them. Along the way, Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said, they began to embrace the challenge of doing something special. When Enrique Hernandez arrived to Globe Life Field on Saturday morning, less than 12 hours after an exhausting, season-saving win in Game 5, he encountered the most energetic clubhouse he had ever experienced before a day game.

"We can either embrace the situation, or we can pout and just kinda go through the motions," Hernandez said shortly thereafter. "That's not what we're gonna do. We're not gonna make things easy. We're still trying to win a World Series, and that's still the goal. Nobody said it was gonna be easy."

Game 6 certainly wasn't.

It required Buehler blowing fastballs by a team that held a major league-best .960 OPS against fastballs this season, in the most unfavorable situation imaginable. It required Blake Treinen retiring Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna, two of baseball's three best hitters by weighted runs created plus in 2020, while they represented the tying run in the seventh inning. It required Mookie Betts saving a run with a leaping, twisting, full-extension catch up against the right-field fence, his second game-changing play in as many days.

And it required Kenley Jansen finding a version of himself that no longer seemed to exist.

Over the past few weeks, as Dodgers management explored alternative ninth-inning options, teammates continually encouraged Jansen behind closed doors. At every turn -- even after he was used in the sixth inning of a 14-run lead earlier this week -- Roberts reiterated that Jansen would be counted on to record big outs for what remained of this month. Through that, Jansen went about trying to get his upper half and his lower half back in sync. Phone calls with Charlie Hough and Rick Honeycutt, who combined to pitch 46 years in the major leagues, eventually got him back to the clean delivery of his prime.

In Game 4, after striking out the side to preserve a four-run lead, Jansen glared into his dugout with an intensity rarely seen.

In Game 5, after requiring only six pitches to record three outs, he did it again.

"You can just see the confidence he has on the mound, attacking guys," Turner said. "That's the Kenley Jansen I and all of us in there know and love."

The top of the ninth began with Joc Pederson making a sprawling catch. Think about that for a moment. Pederson, not known for his defense by any stretch, entered the game to pinch-hit in the bottom of the eighth because the Dodgers were desperate to tack on runs. He remained there only because Chris Taylor's right ankle was still too sore to play defense, and yet he charged toward a sinking line drive to make an unlikely play that altered the course of that entire inning and, thus, the Dodgers' entire season.

Moments like these are everywhere now.

They're when Corey Seager makes it a point to look for Max Fried's curveball early and launches a first-inning home run, his fifth of this series.

They're when Pedro Baez throws a right-on-right changeup to cap a nine-pitch at-bat with a strikeout of Travis d'Arnaud, setting the tone for a crucial eighth inning.

They're when Buehler, admittedly more calm than he has ever felt pitching a baseball game, reaches back, lets it go and trusts, regardless of the moment, that his best is better than theirs.

"I have failed in those moments," Buehler said of that second-inning, bases-loaded jam -- two years after a second-inning, bases-loaded jam in his postseason debut resulted in a Ronald Acuna Jr. grand slam.

"I can handle that failure. I have been through it, and I have been good after it. That failure doesn't scare me anymore."

His teammates seem to be on that same level, unafraid of what the next game will bring.