Clayton Kershaw lingered on the field a few moments longer than the rest of his Los Angeles teammates, then looked up at the cheering fans in Dodger Blue, smiled and tipped his cap before quickly disappearing into the dugout and heading off to celebrate.
Kershaw pitched the big-money Dodgers to their third straight NL West title, tossing a one-hitter as Los Angeles beat Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants 8-0 on Tuesday night.
Kershaw allowed just a third-inning single and struck out 13, and now he'll get a chance to erase those sour postseason memories as the Dodgers (88-69) advanced to face the NL East champion New York Mets in a best-of-five Division Series.
"I've been through it now a bunch, I think this is my fifth postseason now," Kershaw said. "I don't know if you can get wiser from failing all the time. I know what that feels like."
Kershaw (16-7) finally got the best of his 2015 nemesis in the fourth matchup of the year against World Series MVP Bumgarner, striking out the side in order three times and retiring the final 19 batters as the Dodgers snapped a four-game losing streak. He is six strikeouts away from 300.
"There's a little bit, if you don't win this one then you've got two more and you start getting a little nervous, you start panicking a little bit," Kershaw said. "We've still got something to play for. We're still trying to fight the Mets for home-field advantage. It's kind of a sigh of relief. We weren't playing that well."
Don Mattingly's Dodgers earned a third straight playoff berth for the first time in franchise history, and did so by snapping a seven-game losing streak at AT&T Park this year. It's also their sixth postseason berth in 10 years.
When Kelby Tomlinson grounded out to end it and rookie shortstop Corey Seager made a nice throw to first, Kershaw raised both arms in the air as his teammates streamed out of the dugout. They all began hugging and dancing on the mound.
"He knows what he needs to do against these guys," catcher A.J. Ellis said.
The Giants immediately offered a message on the main scoreboard: "CONGRATULATIONS, L.A. DODGERS! #RESPECTTHERIVALRY"
Los Angeles players pulled on their new NL West champion caps and T-shirts before the party began on the other side of AT&T Park than where clinching celebrations typically take place.
"It just feels good to win it period," Mattingly said. "They are tough to beat. And honestly I did not want to lose the game tonight and have to get into more games here and let the thing build."
Justin Ruggiano and Ellis hit back-to-back home runs in the sixth to chase Bumgarner (18-9), denying the Giants their first 19-game winner in 18 years.
Andre Ethier added a two-run triple in a four-run eighth, and Los Angeles captured its 14th NL West title and earned its 29th playoff berth — 20th in Los Angeles. Ellis and Seager added run-scoring singles that inning.
Los Angeles lost a four-game division series to St. Louis last October — with Kershaw losing twice — and the club hasn't reached the World Series since winning it all in 1988, getting knocked out in either the division series or NL Championship Series in its last eight postseason appearances since.
Now, with two of the top pitchers in the game — Zack Greinke and Kershaw — stellar rookies such as Seager and outfielder Joc Pederson, veteran infielder Jimmy Rollins and August acquisition Chase Utley leading a loaded bench, the Dodgers are counting on a deep October run.
"It's a fun mix, it's a talented mix and hopefully it's the right mix," Kershaw said.
They got this far with huge expectations under first-year President of Baseball Operations, Andrew Friedman, and new general manager Farhan Zaidi — and with a whopping regular-season payroll of $285 million.
It took a few days longer than expected to secure their latest playoff berth after a surprising sweep by last-place Colorado at Coors Field over the weekend and a 12-inning loss Monday night. But, the way it worked out, the Dodgers got to celebrate on the home field of their rival at sold-out AT&T Park.
The only other time in the ballpark's 16-year history that a visiting team clinched a playoff berth or series here was the Dodgerswhen they captured the NL wild card on the second-to-last day in 2006.
The Dodgers ended their longest skid in San Francisco since June 12, 1961-April 16, 1962, when they lost a franchise-worst nine straight road games in the rivalry.
Kevin Frandsen's one-out single in the third was the Giants' first baserunner against Kershaw.
But the defending champion Giants miss the playoffs in another odd year following a World Series win for the third time in six years — after their 2010, '12 and '14 titles.
Bumgarner allowed Justin Turner's first-inning sacrifice fly and a leadoff homer to Kike Hernandez in the third.
The big lefty had been 2-0 with a 1.31 ERA in his previous 2015 outings opposing Kershaw, who had gone 0-2 with a 3.54 ERA in those starts.
He won't forget watching the Dodgers celebrate here.
"You take that, and you remember that feeling going into the offseason. It's not a good feeling," he said. "You don't want to be a part of that. You want to be the one celebrating. You let it give you a little bit of fuel for next year."