SAN FRANCISCO — Into the late innings they went, tied in the sixth, tied in the seventh, eighth and ninth. It was the 24th time the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants played this season, with the margin between baseball’s two best teams still as thin as the outside edge of an umpire’s strike zone.
Two teams with 109 victories, regular season plus postseason, bitter rivals and nobody wanting to go home. Until, finally, it was time: Unable to catch the Giants in the regular season and now stretching this best-of-five National League division series as far as it could go, the Dodgers nicked the Giants rookie closer, Camilo Doval, for two one-out base runners in the ninth on Thursday night before Cody Bellinger turned on a slider, redirecting the 87-mile-per-hour pitch onto the grass, where right fielder Austin Slater and center fielder Kris Bryant could do nothing but watch it land.
Justin Turner raced home from second, Max Scherzer worked the ninth to collect the first save of his career, and the 2-1 victory sent the Dodgers on to Atlanta, where they will open the N.L. Championship Series on Saturday night.
The ending, however, did not come without controversy. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Wilmer Flores was facing Scherzer and quickly fell behind, 0-2. Flores tried to check his swing on a slider by Scherzer, but the umpires determined he had gone through, ending the game and the series on a judgment call that was not reviewable. The call, coming in a season-ending matchup between rival clubs, will undoubtedly be debated for years to come.
How big was this matchup? It was only the fifth time that two teams with 100 or more wins played in a winner-take-all postseason game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. And the team with fewer regular season victories was the winner in three of the previous four games. Now, make that four of five.
A crowd of 42,275 filled Oracle Park, wearing black and orange, chanting “Beat LA! Beat LA!” Upstairs in a suite were the N.B.A.’s Golden State Warriors. Downstairs in a box seat near the Giants’ dugout was Barry Bonds. Both received thunderous ovations when shown on the scoreboard between innings. Bonds beamed, smiling widely as he rose from his seat, waving appreciatively to the crowd.
It was a night of ovations and smiles, big moments and small. The Dodgers dropped the first bombshell of the day Thursday morning when they announced that Corey Knebel would start in place of Julio Urias. Nothing was wrong with Urias. He entered the game in the third. This was simply one of baseball’s richest franchises leaning in on the use of an opener, just like the low-spending Tampa Bay Rays.
The Giants didn’t blink, other than holding off on finalizing their lineup until about 90 minutes before game time as they studied the numbers and revised their script. One thing they weren’t changing was handing the ball to Logan Webb, 24, and he was nearly as strong as he had been in Game 1, when he shut out the Dodgers over seven and two-thirds innings.
The only blemish on Thursday came in the sixth, when Mookie Betts cracked a one-out single and stole second. Next up, Corey Seager cracked an opposite-field base hit that drove him home.
The lead lasted almost no time at all. Leading off the bottom of the inning, left fielder Darin Ruf clobbered a 94-m.p.h. Urias fastball, sending it over the center field fence to even the game at 1-1. The blast was 452 feet, the longest homer of this postseason.
The Dodgers’ only failure was that they had but one Betts to face Webb. When Webb exited Game 5 after seven innings, it was 1-1 and Betts, the Dodgers’ superstar outfielder, had gone 5 for 7 against him over Games 1 and 5. The rest of the Dodgers were 3 for 46.
Thin margins and lost opportunities defined the evening. The Giants had their chances in the first four innings against the Dodgers’ opening parade of Knebel (first inning), Brusdar Graterol (second) and Urias but failed to earn the upper hand, going 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position.
When the fourth inning ended, the Giants were 3 for 25 with runners in scoring position in the series. They will regret that all winter.
This was the first time since the Giants moved West in 1958 that they had faced a single opponent at least 24 times in a season. The last time they met a rival 24 or more times was 1951, when they and the Brooklyn Dodgers played 25 games against each other. That final game was one of the most memorable in history, the Giants winning on Bobby Thomson’s ninth-inning home run.
The legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully checked in Thursday afternoon via Twitter, calling this game “the most important game in the history of their rivalry. With nearly identical records, and so much at stake, I believe this to be the case.”
If this was the most important game, then the Dodgers will have bragging rights for years to come.