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Nightengale: Dodgers and New Hero Hernandez Bash Into World Series

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Dodgers players celebrate the National League pennant after defeating the Cubs. Photo: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

The game had been over for nearly 90 minutes Thursday evening, and Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Enrique Hernandez found himself walking around in a daze in the champagne-drenched makeshift party room at Wrigley Field, looking for one man.

Here it was, the greatest night of his life, the Dodgers winning their biggest game in 29 years, and the only thing on his mind was finding his father, Enrique Hernandez Sr.

Hernandez hit three home runs, becoming only the 10th player in major-league history to perform the feat in a postseason game in the Dodgers’ 11-1 pennant-clinching victory over the Chicago Cubs. All he could think about, though, was his father, and everyone left behind in his battered homeland of Puerto Rico.

“There was so much going on in my mind,’’ said Hernandez, his eyes reddened, “but the No. 1 thing for me was wanting the game to get over so I could give my dad a big ol’ hug. I didn’t really care about anything else. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here.

“He sacrificed so much of his life for me to be here right now, and after battling cancer [multiple Myeloma] last year, kicking cancer’s ass, and after what my people back home are going through, it’s pretty emotional.

“It’s something I can’t truly put into words, but it means the world to me.’’

Hernandez, 26, took a swig of beer, shut his eyes, and reflected momentarily. It was back in March when he nearly cost himself a job on the Dodgers’ opening-day roster by choosing to play for his homeland of Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic instead of staying in camp. He left the team last month to attend his grandfather’s funeral, and returned just one day before Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

“My people back home are going through some really horrible times,’’ Hernandez said, “and for me to be able to do this, on a stage like this, it means so much to at least give the people back home something to smile about at least for a little bit. This is about the only thing they have going for them now.

“That’s why I really don’t remember much about this game. I don’t know what I did running the bases. I don’t know what I did when I got to the dugout. But I can tell you it was pretty cool.

“We are going to the World Series.’’

The Dodgers, for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president, won the National League pennant on the same field where they lost the NLCS a year ago, dominating the defending World Series champions in every phase.

Hernandez, with a leadoff homer in the second inning, a grand slam in the third and a  and a two-run shot in the ninth, produced an LCS record seven RBI, just one less run than the Cubs’ team scored during the five-game series.

“Not only did we beat the world champs,’’ Hernandez said, “we did it in an empty stadium. We crushed their fans’ hearts and they left early. By the 27th out, they were all Dodger fans in the stadium.

“It was awesome to do this, but we’re not going to sit down and say, “Ah, we got to the World Series.’ That’s not our goal. It’s never been our goal.

“The goal is to win the World Series. If we get there, and don’t win, the season is worth nothing.’’

It seems harsh, but this is a team favored to win the World Series since spring training. They won 104 games during the season, and seven more in the postseason, for a franchise-record 111 victories.

“The city needed this,’’ said Tommy Lasorda, 90, who managed the team to their last World Series title. “The fans have supported them so much. We owed them this year, and now they’re getting it.

“Wouldn’t it be great to play the Yankees and have the entire nation all into it?’’

Certainly, it’s the series that Major League Baseball and the TV networks covet, with the Yankees and Dodgers meeting three times in a five-year span from 1977 to 1981, but pardon Hernandez if he’d prefer to instead play the Houston Astros.

Nothing against nostalgia, but the Astros are owned by Jim Crane, the same man who sent two planes filled with nearly 300,000 pounds of supplies to Puerto Rico, and also a third plane to pick up needy families who are dealing with medical conditions.

Hernandez’s parents were on that plane, along with his fiancée’s entire family.

“Mr. Crane was extremely generous what he did,’’ Hernandez said. “There was no reason for him to do all he did for my people back home. There are still some good people in the world, man, and it’s something I will always be extremely grateful for.

“If we meet in the World Series, hopefully I can go up to him and say, “Hey, Mr. Crane, I know you traded me. But thanks for getting my family out of Puerto Rico when they needed to get out of there.’

“It was amazing.’’

Hernandez was traded from the Astros to the Miami Marlins on July 31, 2014, and five months later, was traded to the Dodgers along with Chris Hatcher, Austin Barnes and Andrew Heaney for Dee Gordon, Dan Haren and Miguel Rojas.

Now, the Dodgers await the winner of the Yankees-Astros series, with their ace, Clayton Kershaw, who smothered the Cubs’ lineup by yielding just three hits and one run in six innings, already being announced as the Game 1 starter.

“It’s an incredible feeling,’’ Kershaw said. “When you’re a kid, you just hope you make it to the big leagues. So to get to say you’re going to go play in the World Series, it’s an incredibly special moment. Up there with getting married and having kids, it’s right up there with one of the best days of my life.

“Winning the World Series is really all that we play this game for. If we win, I might retire, so I might just call it a career.’’

It was that kind of night, one that Hernandez swears he doesn’t remember, but knows he’ll cherish forever.

“What a night,’’ Hernandez said. “What a year. What a team.’’

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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