On so many fall nights over these Octobers, in dark stadiums just large enough sometimes for a man and his baseball crusade, Clayton Kershaw had watched them come for him. They were intelligent and honorable men with good intentions who cared for him and shared his crusade. He would trust them with about anything — with his well-being, with his career. They could borrow his car. They could babysit his kids.
They could not, however, have the baseball that was in his hand.
They’d arrive at the pitcher’s mound, having come all that way, and they’d usually have brought sound rationale with them, not always but usually, and at about the time a decision had to be made — one of them was going to have to leave, alone — Clayton Kershaw would nod and go. Not always but usually.
On the good nights and the bad ones, on the nights when the line drives were caught and the nights they top-spinned all the way to the fence, on the nights he thought he could pitch forever and … well, there were only those kinds of nights. When he was great he had to keep being great. When he was not, he had to fix it. He had to stay and make it right. Please let him stay and make it right.
One day he’ll have to look back on it all, years and years of this, October after October, and count it up. The Los Angeles Dodgers are a win from their first World Series championship in 32 years, and on a Sunday night in his 10th October, Kershaw carved another 17 outs from that, got them that much closer to a 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays and a three-games-to-two lead in the World Series, and then watched manager Dave Roberts come for him. Kershaw had agreed to this very strategy, only a few minutes and exactly two pitches before.
This was not the biggest start of his career, only the latest one. What it was, more precisely, was the last World Series start he could be absolutely sure of making. Already he had pitched the most postseason innings in baseball history without having won a World Series, by plenty, and his slider wasn’t feeling so good and his curveball was kind of sloppy and still he’d pitched to the verge of the seventh inning. That close then to Game 6. His hair was pasted to his cheeks and he’d sweated through that ratty gamer cap again and they weren’t going to let him pitch straight through Monday and into Tuesday and through Tuesday night anyway, so here came Dave Roberts and here came his catcher and here came all the infielders, and it was time.
Except maybe it wasn’t.
This is what Kershaw might be remembered for one day, at least in part, by the men he played with and those he played against, by those who coached him and managed him and the people who paid to watch him and those who were paid to watch him. That is, those October nights in dark stadiums when he didn’t ever want to quit, couldn’t ever quit, when he’d stand so still so as not to disrespect Don Mattingly or Dave Roberts and raise his glove to his face and ask for one more batter, one more inning, one more game, one more October.
The numbers are what they are for him, at 32, after 13 brilliant big-league seasons and those 10 postseasons, and in this postseason that’s five starts, four Dodgers wins, five walks, 37 strikeouts and a 2.93 ERA. The rest, outside of whatever the remainder of the series has in store for Kershaw and possible innings out of the bullpen, will be left to the other 27 Dodgers. He had done his part again, except for, you know, that one more batter, which seemed to him negotiable, and then maybe they could talk about the one after that and the one after that.
In a series intent on being played to its final few inches, the Dodgers’ bullpen had come apart in their two losses, and Game 6 seemed headed to something like a bullpen game again. The Rays would start Blake Snell in Game 6 and had Charlie Morton scheduled for Game 7. That made a win in Game 5 at the very least pivotal and likely, for the Dodgers, necessary. Their bullpen, too, was in flux, in part because of who was rested enough to pitch and in part because the list of possibly effective relievers had narrowed. So what would follow Kershaw, according to a probably somewhat fluid plan, was the rookie Dustin May, and then as it turned out the rookie Victor Gonzalez, and then Blake Treinen — and not Kenley Jansen — in the ninth inning. When it works, it’s called unconventional. It’s called Knowing Your Guys. And it would be fine. Harrowing, maybe, but fine.
But where it originated was with two out in the sixth inning, the Dodgers leading 4-2, the bases empty, Kershaw at 85 pitches and having retired seven batters in a row, having not allowed a hit since the third inning. Kershaw hadn’t just pitched to get them all to Game 6, but also to pitch them away from Game 4, which had ended for them grotesquely, and with 10 outs to go there was a clear consensus when Roberts reached the pitcher’s mound.
“I think all of us wanted Kersh to stay in,” said Max Muncy, the first baseman.
They folded their arms. They sighed loud enough for Roberts to hear. Justin Turner, the third baseman, said the words everyone was thinking, that Kershaw gets the next guy, easy.
“Oh, it was Justin trying to lobby to keep him in the game,” Roberts said with a grin. “You saw it right.”
Kershaw drew his glove to his mouth, had his say too. If they’d reached the place in the game where the outs get bigger and scarier, where the whole season seemed to teeter, then everyone agreed Kershaw — even with the slider he didn’t totally trust and the curveball that had a mind of its own — should throw those pitches. The plan was for Kershaw to get the first two batters of the sixth, then give up the ball. Randy Arozarena and Brandon Lowe fell in two pitches. Certainly that changed everything.
On the mound, Roberts seemed to smile.
“I just felt — we felt — he was at the end,” Roberts said. “He just had enough to get two hitters to go to Dustin at [Manuel] Margot. We talked about it and he held up his part of the deal. And got the two hitters. We didn’t say how many pitches. We said two hitters. That was what we had agreed upon. At that point in time I felt that I wanted to take the baseball from him. He just grinded. He willed himself to that point.”
May, the 23-year-old who’d allowed six runs in his past three appearances, arrived and retired four consecutive hitters, two by strikeout, Margot with a 101-mph fastball. Gonzalez followed, walked a batter to put two men on base, then got Arozarena and Lowe on fly balls to end the eighth. And Treinen allowed a hit to start the ninth and pitched to Austin Meadows, Joey Wendle and Willy Adames as the potential tying runs. He struck out Adames to end the game, to get them all to Game 6 with a lead.
“Yeah, that was the plan,” Kershaw said. “We talked about it before the inning. Even though it was just two pitches, which made it seem super fast. Two outs, nobody on, we stuck with the plan. So credit to [Roberts] on that one.”
Near the town he grew up in, in one of those dark October ballparks that haven’t always known how to treat him, before a crowd of a little more than 11,000 people spread across one every four seats, Kershaw left to a standing ovation.
“It feels pretty good, yeah,” he said. “It feels pretty good. … That’s what you work for. That’s what you play for. This month. I know what the other end of that feels like too. So, I’ll definitely take it when I can get it.”
What comes next, now that he’s given up the ball, is for Kershaw to wait. First they’ll all wait through Monday’s day off. Then he’ll watch the rookie Tony Gonsolin start on Tuesday, knowing Walker Buehler would pitch a Game 7. And Kershaw will show up ready to pitch, because you never know.
“Well, the off day’s gonna be hard tomorrow,” he said. “I mean, it’s going to be good for us, resetting our bullpen and things like that, which is huge. But sitting around, one win away from a World Series is going to be hard, especially when you’ve been in the same hotel for four weeks now. You know, I think we can wait one more day.”
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