Whicker: Dodgers’ beefed-up bullpen helps send them to NLDS

LOS ANGELES — Chris Taylor’s home run landed hard. Hard enough to spring the joyful playoff noise from Dodger Stadium for the first time since Game 1 of the 2019 National League Division Series.

Hard enough to justify Max Scherzer’s prediction that it would turn out exactly that way, that Cody Bellinger would draw a walk in the ninth inning and Taylor would bury Alex Reyes’ slider into the left field bleachers.

“I thought (Albert) Pujols would actually hit the home run,” third baseman Justin Turner said later, “and he almost did.”

The point is that key people in the Dodgers’ dugout knew it would end in the ninth and, for that matter, how it would end.

Taylor’s two-run shot finally subdued the Cardinals, 3-1, in one of the most involving games of any kind that the Dodgers have played in the Guggenheim era.

“I think we made them a little nervous,” said Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals’ starting pitcher. “But they were relentless. They were who they are.”

However, there was a calling card that landed even harder, and it should have resounded throughout the Bay Area, as the Dodgers and Giants prepare for a Golden best-of-five series that begins Friday night in San Francisco.

The real message of this victory is that the Dodgers are playing with a couple of full decks in their bullpen these days, and those who assume they can still hang around until the end and watch the Dodgers dissolve might be sadly mistaken.

This game was not supposed to be a job from the relievers, not with Max Scherzer performing. But Scherzer was all over the place in his 4-1/3 innings, throwing 94 pitches and watching Manager Dave Roberts come out with the hook.

Roberts extended his right hand and quickly realized the ball was not going to be placed in it. He instead shook hands with his right-hander and then plucked the ball out of Scherzer’s glove.

It went to a better place.

Joe Kelly got two outs in the fifth and stranded Paul Goldschmidt at third base. Brusdar Graterol faced four hitters and was back in the dugout in five pitches, getting three grounders and holding his stuff at 100 mph.

Blake Treinen, unaccustomed to getting five outs, did so. It was laborious, since he had to pop up Nolan Arenado with Tyler O’Neill on second. Corey Knebel, who was once a nuclear closer in Milwaukee, struck out Harrison Bader with two out in the eighth.

It all led up to Kenley Jansen, who struck out the side in the ninth. Tommy Edman, who played a fabulous game at both ends for the Cardinals, got his third hit and stole a base in the ninth, but Jansen fanned Goldschmidt and then cranked a high 94 mph fastball that O’Neill waved at. You could hear it pop Will Smith’s glove in Eagle Rock.

“In terms of having a lot of neutral guys, then, yeah, it’s probably as good as we’ve had,” Roberts said, referring to relievers who don’t mind which side of the plate the hitter occupies.

“They’ve been our backbone all year,” Justin Turner said. “I thought Max did a great job battling tonight, and then the guys came in and did what they always do.”

Roberts did some roster shuffling because this was a win-or-stay-home situation. He left David Price off the roster and he thought he might have to use Julio Urias. Instead, Urias was a cheerleader and can now work Game 2 in San Francisco without a problem on Saturday night. Walker Buehler is the Game 1 starter Friday night, and Scherzer can come back for Game 3 on Monday night at Dodger Stadium.

It’s basically what they wanted.

The bullpen has always been the foreboding theme for the Dodgers, with appropriate “Twilight Zone” music in the background whenever the innings begin to dwindle. Only two years ago Clayton Kershaw was involved in the bullpen mix. In 2017 Brandan Morrow was worked into exhaustion. In 2018, a wrenching seven-game NLCS with Milwaukee wore down the relievers, and even though they rallied to extend Game 3 of the World Series to 18 innings, there wasn’t much left, before or after.

On Wednesday the Dodgers were able to outlast the Cardinals’ distinguished bullpen without having to use either Alex Vesia or Phil Bickford. They all await another roster alteration before Game 1 at Oracle Park.

“I really thought the winner of this game would go on to win the World Series,” Wainwright said. “I think we got to see that we could compete with a great team in this atmosphere.”

But it takes years of bonding, through champagne and through silence, to develop the keen antennae for winning that the Dodgers have.

Taylor was told that Scherzer had predicted this Hollywood ending perfectly.

“Good call,” he said, smiling. But not a hard one.