Powered by Puig, Dodgers muscle their way back to the World Series

MILWAUKEE -- Rich Hill sprayed Manny Machado with champagne while he booed him, mocking the Miller Park fans who united in their hostility toward the Los Angeles Dodgers' shortstop. Yasiel Puig grabbed garbage cans full of iced water and dumped them on a couple of unsuspecting reporters. Cody Bellinger walked over to Tommy Lasorda, the man who led this franchise to its last championship three decades ago, and gently poured a bottle of beer on his cap.

The Dodgers -- out of it in May, reeling in August, desperate throughout September -- are heading back to the World Series, where the American League champion Boston Red Sox will await.

"This is a team that doesn't have 'easy' in the playbook," Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said late Saturday night, moments after a 5-1 win over the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. "We like to do things the hard way. But it's an extremely talented group, and one who's really, extremely focused on winning four more games and winning a World Series championship."

Walker Buehler, only the fourth rookie in the past 30 years to start a Game 7, recorded the first 14 outs, giving up only a Christian Yelich home run and striking out seven batters. Clayton Kershaw, three days removed from a masterful performance in Game 5, mowed through the Brewers in the final inning.

In between, there was Julio Urias, Ryan Madson and Kenley Jansen combining to allow only one baserunner in 4⅓ innings. There was Bellinger, struggling with his swing throughout October, taking Jhoulys Chacin deep with the two-run home run that proved to be the difference. There was Chris Taylor, with all his positional flexibility, making a sensational over-the-shoulder catch at the warning track.

And there was Puig, soaking in this experience like few others, delivering the decisive blow -- a three-run shot on a low-hanging line drive to straightaway center field.

With that, the Dodgers became the sixth team in baseball history to fall 10 games below .500 and reach the World Series in the same season, a feat last pulled off by the 2005 Houston Astros, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau. Only two of the previous five won it all, the most recent of which was the 2003 Florida Marlins.

"I'm just so proud of our guys for enduring this roller coaster of a season," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "A lot of people had their hand in this. And for us to just continue to lean on each other, depend on each other and stay the course, it says a lot about the focus, the toughness, of this team."

The Dodgers have not claimed a championship trophy in 30 years and are making a second straight trip to the World Series for the first time in 40 years.

Their road back was a bumpy one. A loss to the Astros in Game 7 of last year's World Series was followed by a conservative offseason, one motivated by the organization's desire to dip under the luxury-tax threshold. It bled into a staggeringly slow start, which saw the Dodgers fall all the way to 16-26 on May 16. Corey Seager, their dynamic young shortstop, was lost for the year because of Tommy John surgery. Justin Turner, their veteran leader, was on the shelf with a broken wrist. Jansen, their star closer, was off to a slow start. Kershaw, their future Hall of Famer, was attacking hitters with a slower fastball.

But the Dodgers rebounded, winning 43 of their 63 games leading up to July 28 to jump back into the mix. A bullpen meltdown around the middle of August -- triggered by Jansen's irregular heartbeat -- prompted a 3-9 stretch. The Dodgers recovered again by winning 11 of their next 15. They lost back-to-back games to the woeful Cincinnati Reds from Sept. 10 to 11, but they took three of four from the St. Louis Cardinals, then swept the Colorado Rockies and later won the last four games of their regular season, including a one-game tiebreaker on the first day of October.

The Dodgers overwhelmed the young Atlanta Braves in the NL Division Series, then outlasted a Brewers team that used creative and at times unprecedented methods to make up for deficiencies in their rotation.

"This team never quit," Jansen said. "We took all the negativities this year, let that motivate us and here we are, back in the World Series."

This series in many ways encapsulated the Dodgers' resurgence.

They played a historically bad Game 1, committing four errors and two passed balls, but Turner's late home run saved them in Game 2. They lulled to a Game 3 loss, but they prevailed in 13 innings in Game 4 and rode a dominant Kershaw in Game 5. They fell behind early and never recovered in Game 6, but they became the aggressors in Game 7 and hardly let up.

Machado, booed vociferously in Milwaukee, ignited the offense with, of all things, a bunt, reaching base to set the table for Bellinger's second-inning homer. The offense waited out Josh Hader over the next three innings, then jumped all over Jeremy Jeffress in the sixth, Puig's home run the catalyst.

In the half-inning prior, Taylor saved the game by robbing Yelich of an extra-base hit that would have tied it.

"I think I set a new personal record with my vertical leap, jumping up and down after he made that play," Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi said.

Bellinger called Taylor's grab "the catch of the year," adding: "I don't know what would happen if he doesn't make that catch."

By exerting only 15 pitches in one inning, Kershaw set himself up to start opposite Chris Sale in Game 1 of the World Series, which won't take place until Tuesday at 8:09 p.m. ET from Fenway Park.

The Dodgers will encounter a Red Sox team that outscored its opponents by a combined 250 runs during the regular season, then cruised past the New York Yankees and the Astros in the playoffs. The Red Sox are slight favorites to win, but the Dodgers are too confounding to predict.

The Dodgers' bullpen was burdened by inconsistencies, their lineup struggled to manufacture runs and their entire team appeared to often play down to the competition throughout the summer. But the Dodgers' depth and star power proved too overwhelming to hinder them. They mashed home runs at a remarkable rate, sported a bounty of capable starting pitchers, got production in places they did not expect and, up until now, responded to every challenge presented to them.

Now, as Turner said, only one task remains.

"We gotta finish the job."