"We're going to take it to another level," promised Manny Ramirez. "I already celebrated tonight -- I got a hit."
The Dodgers have back-to-back first-place finishes for the first time since 1977-78 after already qualifying for postseason play three of the four years that Ned Colletti has been general manager. The last time they advanced three times in a four-year span was 1963-66. Their 94 wins are the most for a Dodgers team since 1988, the last time they won the World Series.
"This is a huge step for the franchise," owner Frank McCourt said. "I think we have the franchise back to a place where the fans know and can expect us to compete every year. I'm so grateful to the fans for their support. You could feel the energy tonight. They willed the team to victory in that seventh inning. To be leading baseball in attendance in this economy, it says a lot about our fans. This is for them."
The Dodgers have played in 18 World Series (winning six times), eight League Championship Series (winning five times) and this will be their seventh appearance in the Division Series (winning twice). It is their 11th division title since the current format began in 1969.
Last year without the home-field advantage they eliminated the Cubs in the NLDS with a three-game sweep. The Dodgers haven't opened a postseason series at home since 1996.
"It never gets old," said Joe Torre, who will manage in the postseason for the 14th consecutive season, tying Bobby Cox's all-time record. "You do it with different people all the time, just to see all these men turn into little boys -- it's like what Roy Campanella said, you have to have some little boy in you to play this game and we certainly showed that tonight."
Torre conceded that watching clinching opportunities slip away all week had become an ordeal.
"We were tight, but there's tight, and then there's tight," he said. "[Hitting coach] Don Mattingly and I were talking about how tough it is to win in September with something at stake. But all year we played so well when we needed to play well. I was uptight, but they played well tonight."
The Dodgers have had at least a share of the league's best record for all but one day (Sept. 11) since entering play May 3, longer than any Dodgers team since 1974.
They accomplished this despite losing Ramirez for 50 games to a drug suspension, despite losing Opening Day starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda for roughly one-third of the season (and at least the first round of the playoffs) to three different injuries, despite subpar offensive seasons from shortstop Rafael Furcal and catcher Russell Martin and despite the second-half slump of All-Star Chad Billingsley.
Overcoming the negatives were the emergence into stardom of slugging outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, Randy Wolf stepping up to ace consistency, a deep and efficient bullpen led by All-Star closer Jonathan Broxton, the occasional brilliance of 21-year-old left-hander Clayton Kershaw, the steady leadership of third baseman Casey Blake, Orlando Hudson's All-Star return from a serious wrist injury and Colletti's midseason acquisitions of George Sherrill, Vicente Padilla, Jon Garland, Ronnie Belliard and Jim Thome.
Crucial to the early-season success of the club was the play of the bench, and it stood out again Saturday night, as the five-run seventh inning included hits from Belliard, Mark Loretta and Juan Pierre.
Torre said the sweetest moments of that inning for him were a bunt by James Loney after Blake's leadoff hit and the final run and an RBI single by Ramirez, who hit the ball hard three times Saturday night after striking out four times Friday night.
"Manny needed that," said Torre. "We were talking earlier about what's wrong. He's insisting it's just that he's not comfortable. Today he seemed to have quieted down and wasn't so jumpy."
The 21-year-old Kershaw was spectacular for six scoreless innings, striking out 10 while allowing only three hits and leaving to his 14th no-decision. Despite his youth, the future ace seized the opportunity to be The Man, no doubt a glimpse of things to come for years to come, which is why Torre yanked him after 104 pitches.
"The sixth time was the charm for us," Kershaw said, jokingly. "I felt good today. I picked the right day to pitch today. This feels pretty amazing. This is something I'll never forget and I'll savor the moment. It's awesome."