Justin Turner and Chris Taylor shared MVP honours in the NL Championship Series, repaying a Dodgers organization willing to roll the dice on players whose big league careers were stalled.
In Turner’s case, it was then-bench coach Tim Wallach who rediscovered him playing in a Cal State-Fullerton alumni baseball game four years ago, after his career appeared all but over.
In Taylor’s case, it was Los Angeles’ willingness to gamble that an off-season of grueling workouts would enable the young utilityman to rebuild his swing in a matter of months.
The co-MVPs turned up in the interview room together after the Dodgers eliminated the reigning World Series champion Chicago Cubs 11-1 in Game 5. They were champagne-soaked with hats turned backward, a pair of goggles still perched on Turner’s head. Fittingly, they doused each other with praise.
“He’s a dynamic player and a table setter,” said Turner, who hit .333 for the series, with two home runs and seven RBIs. “When he goes, we usually go as a team.”
“I talk to him as much as I can. He’s one of the reasons I decided to make the changes I did,” said Taylor, who finished at .316 with two homers and three RBIs. Both men also walked five times, as many as the entire Cubs roster.
Before Los Angeles punched its first World Series ticket since 1988, manager Dave Roberts said Taylor had been a “fringy, 4-A player” with his old swing — good enough to play comfortably in Triple A, but too often overmatched in the major leagues.
With a new look at the plate, the 27-year-old was part of the most valuable duo on the field throughout this series.
“To really try to shoot the moon as far as committing to a swing change, he did that,” Robert said. “And it really paid off.”
Turner, meanwhile, had already established himself in three previous playoff appearances as one of the most dangerous hitters in the post-season. Then he served notice in Game 2 that he’d be a similar force against the Cubs.
His walk-off home run in that one was the Dodgers’ first in the post-season since Kirk Gibson in 1988, a feat he remembered watching as a 4-year-old at his grandmother’s house in Southern California.
“One of my first baseball memories,” Turner said.
Now he’s returning the favour for a few youngsters in search of some inspiration.
“People were talking about the J.T. homer,” Roberts said, “and it’s up to us to make that an iconic moment as well.”
Taylor’s highlights included momentum-swinging home runs in both Games 1 and 3. The first came in the sixth inning, when reliever Hector Rondon tried to throw a 97 mph fastball and watched Taylor deposit it over the wall in right-centre for a 3-2 lead.
The second came in Game 3, when Chicago starter Kyle Hendricks tried to sneak an 88 mph sinker past him. Taylor drove that one into the seats as well, tying it 1-1 and helping LA’s offence get on track in a 6-1 win.
The most inspirational part of Turner’s story stretches much further back.
He broke into the big leagues with Baltimore at the end of the 2009 season but was designated for reassignment to the minors the following spring. Claimed off waivers by the Mets, Turner lasted three seasons playing all around the infield, but the Mets let him leave as a free agent in 2013.
Later that off-season, Wallach saw Turner playing in a Cal State-Fullerton alumni game, and the organization signed him to a minor league deal. His versatility earned him playing time when infielders Hanley Ramirez and Juan Uribe went down with injuries, and the third baseman has been tough to keep off the lineup card since.
After that breakout year, Turner began establishing his post-season bona fides against his old team, the Mets, in the 2015 NLDS with a .526 average. After tearing through the 2016 NLDS, though, Turner stumbled against the Cubs in the NLCS a season ago.
But he more than made up for that this time around.