LOS ANGELES — Everything happens for a reason. At least that’s what the Los Angeles Dodgers told themselves as they boarded their charter flight from Philadelphia and returned home on Thursday; their division-clinching champagne still on ice after laboring through a 6-20 stretch over the past month.
Their magic number, which they figured would have been a non-issue at this point in the season back when they were 91-36 on Aug. 25, finally had dwindled to one heading into Friday’s game against the San Francisco Giants.
They were in position to win their fifth straight division title at Dodger Stadium, in front of more than 50,000 fans, against their most hated rival. But there was something else that made clinching the division Friday extra special and perhaps worth the long wait.
It was Tommy Lasorda’s 90th birthday.
“It’s my mantra right now for all of us,” Dodgers manager David Roberts said Thursday. “It would be only fitting that we clinch the fifth in a row on Tommy’s birthday. That’ll be at the forefront of our minds.”
Lasorda’s office at Dodger Stadium is a mini museum of his life and his 68-year career with the team, which stretches from his days as a player and scout in Brooklyn to his time as a manager and front office executive in Los Angeles.
Next to his desk is a bronze plaque engraved with his picture, his name and a message: “Dodger Stadium was his address, but every ballpark was his home.”
Below his name, his birth year, 1927, is engraved on a small plate next to an empty space that waits for a year Lasorda wants to delay until the Dodgers win one more World Series.
“I want to see them win it,” Lasorda told ESPN. “I want to see them win a World Series one more time.”
Though every inch of Lasorda’s office is covered in photos, awards and mementos, when he was a manager in rookie ball, he had only one sign in his office: “Love baseball. Hate the Giants.”
On Friday, Lasorda received the perfect birthday present. The Dodgers defeated the hated Giants 4-2 to win the NL West and moved to two games ahead of the Cleveland Indians for the best MLB record. Despite a forgettable month following a magical 52-9 stretch this summer, the Dodgers are exactly where they wanted to be when they started the season in April.
“This is what this ball club needed,” Roberts said. “There has been so much anticipation, even going back to October, of coming back and winning the division so to get over that hump and win a fifth division title is something special.
“We don’t take this for granted. We couldn’t have scripted this better. Last year we won it on Vin [Scully]’s last day in the booth at home, and this year we did it on Tommy’s 90th birthday against the Giants. It was perfect.”
The Dodgers knew they would be having a champagne celebration in a clubhouse somewhere at some point when they were 55 games above .500 last month, but they certainly didn’t think it would take this long after enduring an 11-game losing streak, the longest in franchise history since the Brooklyn Dodgers lost 16 straight in 1944. But there was a sense of relief in the Dodgers’ clubhouse after the game that they had finally done it at home as fireworks went off after the game to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” Lasorda’s favorite song.
“It’s baseball and it’s not always easy,” Dodgers rookie Cody Bellinger said. “With the team we have, we’re really talented, but we still have to go out there and compete, and we did that tonight. I think we’re going to be all right.”
The Dodgers’ recipe for their division-clinching win included some of the same basic ingredients they used during their torrid run this summer. Rich Hill was solid on the mound, pitching six innings and giving up five hits and one earned run. After the Dodgers found themselves behind early, they once again were saved by Bellinger, who hit a three-run homer to put the Dodgers ahead for good. It was his 39th home run of the season, breaking the NL rookie record. And in the end Kenley Jansen came in and saved his 40th game, tied for the best in the NL.
After the game, Lasorda, wearing oversized goggles, joined the Dodgers’ champagne celebration in the clubhouse, taking the occasional swig when he was handed a bottle by a player he was four times older than. They all wanted Lasorda to know they won Friday for him.
“I feel good that it happened on my birthday,” Lasorda told ESPN. “Now we have to prepare ourselves for the next step. I think we’re going to win it. There’s no doubt in my mind, but I hope that they cooperate with my prediction.
“I’m just so happy for them. They’re a good team and they play hard and they deserve all the accolades that are being bestowed upon them. It was extra special that they did it against the Giants. I’ve never liked the Giants.”
The road to the postseason hasn’t been as smooth as the Dodgers had hoped it would be last month, but they feel as if they’re back on track after winning the division and are in position to give Lasorda the ultimate present next month, the team’s first World Series title since 1988.
When Roberts saw Lasorda in the Dodgers’ clubhouse after the game, he smiled, gave him a big hug and told him, “This is just the beginning.”