After the Dodgers suffered one of their most frustrating losses in recent memory on Saturday night, manager Dave Roberts and just about every player interviewed afterward talked about moving on to the next day, which can be easier said than done.
“We got our guy on the mound with Kersh, and we’re excited to be where we’re at,” shortstop Corey Seager said before Sunday’s Game 5.
Clayton Kershaw has been through it all with the Dodgers, the icon of the current run of eight consecutive division titles. Each of the previous seven have ended with the Dodgers falling short of their ultimate goal.
Kershaw took the loss in elimination games in 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2018, and gave up two game-tying home runs in relief in the Dodgers’ final game of 2019.
“Any time you can have success in the postseason, it just means so much. It’s what you work for, it’s what you play for this month,” Kershaw said Sunday night. “I know what the other end of that feels like, too, so I’ll definitely take it when I can get it.”
Those losses sting, and contribute to Kershaw’s career 4.19 postseason ERA, a run and three-quarters higher than his era-defining regular season mark. Kershaw’s sustained excellence — the three Cy Young Awards, the MVP — is why he is so heavily scrutinized in October.
For many years, that excellence also carried the burden of Kershaw being pushed to his limit. He started on short rest four straight years in the postseason, including in 2016, when he followed that start with a save one day later to rescue the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLDS, all just a month from returning from a debilitating herniated disc in his back.
After years of over-relying on Kershaw, the Dodgers have handled him more cautiously this October, and it’s worked like a charm. After a dominant, 13-strikeout performance over eight innings to close out Milwaukee in the wild card round, Kershaw hasn’t pitched more than six innings in any start since. He was pulled after only 78 pitches with a five-run lead in Game 1, knowing he’d be starting Game 5, just the fourth time all season he started on four days rest.
“To his credit, he’ll do whatever we ask. I just don’t know many pitchers that would do that,” Roberts said. “In this situation, we’ve used him kind of more conventional, and he’s responded really well. We’re just very lucky to have him, and I couldn’t be happier that the postseason he’s had mirrors who he is as a pitcher. He deserves it, and it’s great.”
That postseason for Kershaw has been his best to date, posting a 2.93 ERA in five starts, winning four of them, with 37 strikeouts and only five walks. In the World Series he’s 2-0 with a 2.31 ERA, allowing three runs in his 11⅔ innings, with 14 strikeouts and three walks.
“Kersh, competing his tail off, I mean, I don’t think you can say enough. I think there’s a tough narrative on him, but he’s a phenomenal pitcher on the biggest stage,” said reliever Blake Treinen, who got the final three outs to save Game 5. “That team is extremely grindy, and it can be frustrating. Kersh, I think a lot of credit goes to what he’s been able to do in this World Series for us.”
Treinen isn’t alone in praising Kershaw. His teammates see all the hard work, even if they are around him for a relatively short time. The Dodgers acquired Michael Young at the August 31 waiver trade deadline in 2013, and his time with Kershaw spanned all of two months, more than enough to make an impression.
I’m guessing there’s a long line of Kersh’s former teammates thrilled to see him kill it in this World Series. Nobody deserves it more.— Michael Young (@MikeyY626) October 26, 2020
That conventional usage of Kershaw in Game 5 involved a plan heading into the sixth inning. The Dodgers were ahead 4-2, and Kershaw was going to face only two more batters, Randy Arozarena and Brandon Lowe, before getting pulled. Kershaw got them each on just one pitch, and Roberts stuck with the plan. It worked out just fine.
“We talked before the inning, and even though it was just two pitches, which made it seem super fast. With two outs and nobody on, we stuck with the plan, so credit to Doc on that one,” Kershaw said.
There was a time when Kershaw would have been apoplectic after getting taken out of a game like that. He still has that intensity, which allowed him to get through 17 outs on Sunday despite not having as sharp of stuff as he did in Game 1.
Perhaps having three kids has mellowed Kershaw. His two oldest, Cali and Charley, were with him during his postgame interview, full of energy and running around as their dad answered questions.
On a night Kershaw pitched the Dodgers to within one win of a championship, his greatest victory came off the field.
“Any dad just wants their kids to be proud of them,” Kershaw said. “Cali told me she was tonight, and I’ll take that for sure.”