Monday, October 16, 2017

Red October: Justin Turner beats the champs

Turner's walkoff homer wins NLCS Game Two for Dodgers
The drama of October postseason baseball continued to unfold in a big way in Sunday night's Game Two of the 2017 National League Championship Series.

The host Los Angeles Dodgers held a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven NLCS. Now they were battling the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs into the bottom of the 9th inning with the two teams tied at 1-1 on the Dodger Stadium scoreboard.

There is an old sports axiom that states "if you want to be the champ, you gotta beat the champ." That is exactly the task in front of this latest version of what has become a perennially disappointing Dodgers ball club.

The Dodgers have not won a World Series championship in nearly 30 years. Not since a gimpy Kirk Gibson caused Vin Scully to disbelieve what he had just seen in October of 1988. Not since Orel Hershiser was acing it on the mound, rather then commenting on aces from the broadcast booth.

Ten times since, Los Angeles has advanced to the postseason. Ten times they and their fans have gone home disappointed. Six times the team didn't even advance past the NLDS.

The disappointment has been particularly difficult in recent years. The Dodgers have now captured five consecutive NL West crowns. But their regular season successes have ended in postseason failure each of the previous four years.

The Dodgers organization and fans wear those recent years and even decades of disillusionment like an albatross around their collective necks.

So as the game rolled on still tied, the specter of a tough loss haunted their thoughts. If the Cubs pulled it out, the series would be tied at a game apiece with the next three scheduled for Wrigley Field in Chicago.

BOTTOM OF THE NINTH OPENS

The mercurial Yasiel Puig led off the bottom of the 9th by drawing a walk from Cubs lefty reliever Brian Duensing. The Cuban native known as 'The Wild Horse' was then bunted to second on a sacrifice from pinch-hitter Charlie Culberson. When yet another pinch-hitter, Kyle Farmer, struck out swinging, there were two outs.

Farmer had pinch-hit for Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who had struck out two while throwing just 13 pitches in the top of the 9th inning. The big lights-out righty from Curacao was now out of the game, a boon to the Chicago hitters.

Joe Maddon, the Cubs respected skipper, strode to the mound and took the ball from Duensing's hand. He motioned out to his bullpen, calling in right-hander John Lackey to face a pair of right-handed hitting Dodgers bats.

Lackey is normally a starting pitcher. This was the second season in Chicago of his now 15-year career, and 59 of his 60 appearances in a Cubs uniform have come in a starting assignment.

But here in the postseason, Lackey has become the odd-man out of the rotation. In fact, Maddon had just used him out of the pen the previous day in Game One, with Lackey tossing 27 pitches over 1.2 innings of work.

Chris Taylor was the first of the Dodgers right-handers that the 38-year old would face. The two battled to a full count, and then Lackey buried a fastball low into the dirt for ball four.

Now there were runners at first and second with two outs. Striding to the plate was Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner.

WHO IS JUSTIN TURNER?

Turner has hair as fire-engine red as there has been in the game in some time, perhaps since the early days of 'Le Grande Orange' himself, Montreal Expos and New York Mets icon Rusty Staub. Not only the coloring makes him distinctive, but Turner also wears his hair long and wild, and he highlights the look with a long, full, red beard.

A local kid from Long Beach, California, Turner will turn 33 years old late next month. He played at Mayfair High School in Lakewood, less than an hour south of Los Angeles. Turner then became a seventh round selection of the Cincinnati Reds in the 2006 MLB Draft out of Cal-State Fullerton.

Over the next eight years, Turner bounced from Cincy to Baltimore to the New York Mets. Only once, in the Big Apple in 2011, did he see more than 100 games. He registered a career high of 51 RBI and 49 runs scored that year, and in 2013 he hit seven home runs for the Mets, also a career high.

As spring training was approaching for the 2014 season, Turner signed for $1 million as a low-cost free agent with the Dodgers. In a utility infield role, Turner played 59 games at third base, 15 at shortstop, and 14 at second base. He hit for a fantastic .340 average with a .404 on-base percentage as well.

The following year he became the full-time starter at the hot corner for the Dodgers, and set career highs with 16 homers, 60 RBI, and 55 runs scored. He also continued to hit for average with a .294 mark. And then he changed his offensive game.

A year ago, Turner began selling out a bit more for power. Though his average dipped to a still-respectable .275, he crushed 27 homers, drove in 90 runs, and became a force in the middle of the lineup. He finished 9th in the 2016 NL MVP voting following the big season.

This year, Turner has been able to find a happy medium, making him an even more dangerous and valuable all-around hitter. He slashed .322/.415/.530 with 21 home runs, 32 doubles, and 71 RBI. All that production while missing nearly a full month to injury from mid-May to mid-June.

RED OCTOBER IN DODGER BLUE

This was the setup as Turner stepped into the batter's box to face Lackey. Two outs in the bottom of the ninth, one out away from tense extra innings. The winning run out at second base with speed in Puig. The veteran hitter and pitcher set for their confrontation.

With the game-winning run at second base, Lackey buried a first-pitch cutter in the dirt to fall behind. For his second offering to Turner, he tried to come over the strike zone with a four-seam fastball. Either Lackey was hoping that Turner would take a strike, or he simply made a mistake, or both.

Lackey's four-seamer broke right over the center of the plate, coming down the pike at 92 miles per hour. Turner wasn't taking. He put a perfect swing on the ball, driving it high and deep to center field. Lackey turned and looked up immediately, praying that the actual trajectory of the ball wouldn't be what his veteran senses told him. 

Center fielder Leonys Martin, who came in as a defensive substitute in a double-switch with Lackey, was playing shallow, hoping to cut off a single and keep Puig at third or throw him out at the plate. He broke back and ran full tilt to the wall, knowing this was bad. The only chance the Cubs had now was if somehow Martin could run this one down.

Martin hadn't even reached the warning track before he knew the effort was futile. He pulled up, hands outstretched as they touched the wall. The ball sailed an easy 10-15 feet over that wall, into the waiting glove of joyous Dodgers fan Keith Hupp.



Turner put out both arms, both index fingers extended in celebration as he rounded first base. The Dodger Stadium crowd was roaring the whole way, and Turner was mobbed by his delirious teammates as he reached home plate.

WEIGHT OFF LA - FOR NOW

The three-run walkoff home run gave Los Angeles a 4-1 victory, and put them ahead by two games to none as the series now heads to Chicago.

Just as importantly, the blast gave the Dodgers some mental and emotional breathing room. They still need to win two more games. But the task just went from doubtful to something more than hopeful. 

Los Angeles will now take the field in Chicago buoyed by that Turner long ball. The man with the flowing red hair and beard had turned would could have been a Dodger blue nightmare into his own red October dream.

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