The Dodgers want it all. That was the point of hiring Andrew Friedman to run their baseball operations three years ago, with Zaidi as his top lieutenant and a deep stable of analysts and former general managers behind them.
Friedman had turned around the thrifty Tampa Bay Rays, and Zaidi had helped oversee winning teams on a tight budget in Oakland. They have continued to seek undervalued talent while also maintaining a payroll that topped $240 million on opening day.
That creates a vast inventory of options for Manager Dave Roberts, with players regularly shuttling to and from the minors and onto and off of the disabled list. Taylor started the season in Class AAA, as did the veteran reliever Brandon Morrow, who is now the top setup man for closer Kenley Jansen.
Morrow fired a 1-2-3 eighth inning on Tuesday and has a 0.96 earned run average in the postseason. Taylor and Turner shared the Most Valuable Player Award in the National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs and have a combined postseason average of .329, with seven homers.
Clayton Kershaw, who overpowered the Astros for seven innings in Game 1, said he knew Turner could hit since they faced each other a decade ago in Class A; Kershaw was a Great Lakes Loon, Turner a Dayton Dragon. Turner revamped his swing at the end of his Mets tenure, in 2013, but Kershaw said there was more to his revival.
“You can’t teach what he’s doing,” Kershaw said. “No mechanics or anything can teach the mind-set and the competitiveness, the clutch-ness, whatever that is. It seems like every single night he’s in the right position to come up with a big hit.”
Turner homered to win Game 2 of the N.L.C.S., 29 years to the day after Gibson’s famous blast to end the opener of the 1988 World Series. And in the Dodgers’ previous World Series, in 1981, a third baseman gave them a needed jolt in their first home game. Coming off two Dodger losses at Yankee Stadium, Cey bashed a three-run homer in the first inning of Game 3 and went on to share the M.V.P. award for the series.
The Dodgers signed Turner before Friedman arrived, after the Mets had foolishly failed to recognize the swing changes he was implementing in September 2013, when he went 15 for 42 (.357) with five extra-base hits. But other teams quit on him, too.
Turner’s original organization, the Cincinnati Reds, dumped him in a minor trade before he had reached Class AAA, and the Baltimore Orioles waived him after 17 games in the majors. The Mets let him go after a little more than three seasons, and life on the bench seemed to be his fate.
“I don’t think anybody grows up dreaming to be a utility guy in the big leagues,” Turner said. “But I certainly wasn’t angry.”
With help from a Mets teammate, Marlon Byrd, and a hitting instructor named Doug Latta, Turner learned to hit more fly balls, helping start a trend around the game that Taylor also capitalized on last off-season with a different instructor, Robert Van Scoyoc.
When the Dodgers got Taylor – from Seattle in a deal for the minor league pitcher Zach Lee – they liked his versatility, athleticism and plate discipline. But mainly he was just another version of Turner with the Mets.
“Everybody knew he was a great utility player; he was going to help us out in that role,” Kershaw said of Taylor. “But as far as being an everyday whatever-you-want-to-put-him-at – shortstop, center fielder, leadoff hitter – with that type of pop, that type of at-bat quality, I would never have guessed it until he started doing it. He’s one of the elite players in the game.”
Taylor hit .288 with 21 homers, 17 steals and an .850 on-base plus slugging percentage this season, while making close to the minimum salary. He did not know he could be this good – “I never could have predicted this,” Taylor conceded after Game 1 – but he has proved his value in several ways.
Taylor drew a nine-pitch walk to lead off the clincher of the N.L.C.S., a series in which he started not just in center, but also at shortstop for Corey Seager, who missed that round with a back injury. After his homer on Tuesday, Taylor showed bunt in his second plate appearance and walked in his third, setting up Turner’s go-ahead homer off Dallas Keuchel.
“It just goes to show you how complete of a player he is, and how lucky we are to have him in our lineup,” Turner said. “He’s been so much fun to hit behind.”
Turner is no longer a bargain like Taylor. After making $8.6 million across his first three years with the Dodgers, he signed a four-year, $64 million contract in free agency last winter. Turner responded with his best season, hitting .322 with 21 homers and a .945 O.P.S., and the other two free agents the Dodgers retained – Jansen and the Game 2 starter Rich Hill – also lived up to their new deals. Jansen got five years and $80 million, Hill three years and $48 million.
“We brought back the core of our team from last year that got to the N.L.C.S., and we felt really good about that team,” Zaidi said. “But having Chris Taylor take his game to the next level, having Brandon Morrow come in and what he’s done in the bullpen — when you get those unexpected contributions from guys, it can really take your team even beyond your expectations.”
The Dodgers did expect to contend for a championship. They just never knew it would happen quite this way.