Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw Slays Ghosts of October Past with Game 5 Gem

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 26, 2020

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw hugs manager Dave Roberts after leaving the game during the sixth inning in Game 5 of the baseball World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

ARLINGTON, Texas – He has danced with 10 Octobers now, becoming as much a part of this month as homecoming, hayrides and Halloween. He's been hallowed at times, and he's been haunted too many other times.

What the Los Angeles Dodgers most needed after Friday night's debacle was an adult in the room to step up and take charge. No more nonsense. And from the first inning, when Clayton Kershaw shook off Yandy Diaz's leadoff single to induce a double-play ground ball from Randy Arozarena, the man the Dodgers needed most to take control did.

After his snappy 5.2 innings in a 4-2 Dodgers Game 5 win that set them up to clinch this World Series title over Tampa Bay as soon as Tuesday, Kershaw, as he often does, toted his three children into the interview room with him for the dissection of another night from one of the most well-decorated players in history.

"Any dad just wants his kids to be proud of him," Kershaw said at one point as daughter Cali Ann, five, and son Charley Clayton, nearly four, looked on (Clayton and Ellen also became parents to another son, Cooper Ellis, in January). "Cali told me she was, so I'll take that."

It was about as sweet a moment as you could possibly imagine for Kershaw in the postseason. He had pitched well, his team had won, his family was in the bubble with him a mere 20 or so minutes from where he and Ellen met, became high school sweethearts and where they still make their home, and the World Series title that has eluded him for his entire career now was as close as 48 hours away.

He held the Rays to two runs while whiffing six, running his postseason career strikeout total to 207, blowing past Justin Verlander (205) for the most in MLB history.

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"It just means I've been on some great teams," Kershaw said, both correctly and modestly, during a World Series in which he's now worked 11.2 innings and surrendered just three earned runs for a 2.31 ERA while striking out 14 and walking only three. "I've gotten to the postseason a lot, and I've had a lot of starts in the postseason.

"It's a special thing to get to be a part of a team like this, and a part of those names."

Eric Gay/Associated Press

He recorded his 13th career postseason win, ranking fifth in MLB history behind Andy Pettitte (19), John Smoltz (15), Verlander (14) and Tom Glavine (14).

Mostly what he wants, though, is the World Series ring he helped position his team for on a chilly, roof-closed kind of evening in Texas.

At 32, he is more philosophical now than he once was, more appreciative than ever of what he has.

"It's not easy when you've been working so long and so hard for one goal and it's getting closer and closer with each win," he said the other day before the Game 5 start. "It's getting harder not to think about the endgame and what that may be like."

Make a guy wait all these years, it's no wonder.

As you may have heard, it isn't always automatic when the leaves turn for the icon who, from April to September, has been the Dodgers' Mr. Automatic for the better part of the past decade. Three Cy Young Awards, one MVP Award, eight All-Star nods and five ERA titles haven't been able to shield him from October's minefields and barking dogs.

And there have been plenty, from Matt Adams crunching a game-winning homer for the Cardinals against Kershaw in St. Louis in 2014 to eliminate the Dodgers from the playoffs to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto smashing back-to-back homers just last fall when the Dodgers leaned on Kershaw in relief of Walker Buehler in Dodger Stadium.

Those, too, helped send the Dodgers home for the winter, and that Division Series loss was the most painful of all. Because October also means that winter is coming, and those cold offseasons bleed into the next year and pretty soon, there are fewer days in front of you in a career than there are in the rear-view mirror.

Sometimes, it's been his fault. Other times, he's shouldered an unfair share of the burden. Take Game 5 of the 2017 World Series, in the middle of Houston's cheating scandal. Kershaw was dominant in Game 1 at Dodger Stadium before getting lit up in Houston. It turned out, he threw 39 sliders in that game and got just one swing-and-miss. Clearly, the Astros knew what was coming. Even after the revelations, Kershaw never complained about how unfair some of the criticism he's endured has been. He just wore it.

Last year's exit left Kershaw standing in the middle of the Dodgers clubhouse with red eyes and a crushed spirit. It was difficult to see.

"Everything people say is true right now about the postseason," he said that night with his postseason numbers then 9-11 with a 4.43 ERA. "I understand that. It's a terrible feeling."

He also eloquently noted last autumn that "every year that you make the postseason, you realize that it's one less year on your career, one less year that you have a chance to win. So you become more grateful and more appreciative every single time you get a chance to win a World Series."

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Kershaw should have been pitching here on Sunday in a coronation setting. The Dodgers should have been up 3-1 with Kershaw pitching for their first World Series title since 1988.

Instead, because they blew Game 4 in a uniquely historical way—Tampa Bay racked up the first walk-off win in which there were two defensive errors made on the game's final play—the series was knotted at 2-2, and the stomachs of veteran Kershaw watchers were knotted as well.

No, not again…the baseball equivalent of a knuckle sandwich can't happen to this guy again, can it?

No, it wouldn't. It couldn't.

Even though his stuff wasn't as sharp as it was in Game 1—Kershaw said both his slider and curveball were better in the opener than they were Sunday—he maintained.

He was wobbly in the first two innings but held on to a 3-0 lead. He gave up two runs in the third but struck out Brandon Lowe—and got help from Austin Barnes, who threw out Arozarena trying to steal second—to keep the lead.

The turning point came in the fourth, when he walked Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe to start the inning and wound up in a first-and-third, nobody-out pickle. But he induced a pop-up to short from Joey Wendle and then harnessed a 74.3 mph curve to get Willy Adames swinging at strike three.

Then, with lefty Kevin Kiermaier at the plate, the fun began: Margot attempted to become the first player to swipe home plate on a straight steal in a World Series game since St. Louis' Lonnie Smith in Game 1 of the 1982 World Series.

Unlike the comedy of errors that ended Game 4, Kershaw had the presence of mind in the moment to slow the game down. First baseman Max Muncy first saw Margot break, so Muncy moved in toward the plate screaming at Kershaw, "Homehomehomehome!" and, as Muncy said, Kershaw took it from there.

Kershaw's version had Muncy screaming "Step off! Step off! Step off!"

Ah, details. While maybe the exact words weren't clear, Muncy's reaction and Kershaw's stepping off the rubber and making a great throw home were exceptionally clear. Barnes slapped down the tag a split second ahead of Margot's hands grabbing the plate in a head-first slide.

Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said it was Margot's play and not a call from the bench.

"You know, we try to do things and make decisions and allow players to be the athletes they are," Cash said. "And if Manny felt he had a read on it for whatever reason, it's tough for me to say yes or no because he's a talented baserunner. He might be seeing something I'm not right there."

In past years, maybe Margot is safe, the game blows up on the Dodgers and Kershaw is the target of the howling critics yet again.

This year, not so fast.

Kershaw retired the next five Rays in order over the fifth and sixth innings, including getting two outs on two pitches in the sixth before manager Dave Roberts called for reliever Dustin May to a chorus of roaring boos from many of the 11,437 in Globe Life Field.

Who doesn't love a story that has Kershaw earning redemption in the end, other than Rays fans?

Kershaw had thrown only 85 pitches, but his night was finished. This time, the Dodgers were determined not to push him too far, not to over-ask on what he could deliver.

"We talked about it before the inning," Kershaw said. "Even though it was just two pitches, which made it seem super fast, we stuck to the plan. Credit Doc [Roberts] for that one."

From the stands, the boos rained down. On the mound, third baseman Justin Turner lobbied hard for Roberts to keep riding his horse.

But the manager motioned for the bullpen anyway.

"I wouldn't say it's difficult. I just understand that fans and players get caught up in emotion," Roberts said. "And I'm emotional. But I still have to have clarity making decisions. Because ultimately my job is to help the Dodgers win the World Series."

Now just one win away, they can sense it. Actor and Dodgers fan Rob Lowe was seen in the Globe Life Field seats Sunday night. The Dodgers now have led Tampa Bay in 25 of the past 27 innings. Tony Gonsolin will start Game 6 with the bullpen oiled and ready to go.

Final preparations are in place. 

Now, it's just a matter of wading through one more off day to get to them.

    

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter to talk baseball.