WASHINGTON, D.C.—To think people once questioned the postseason pedigree of Clayton Kershaw.
He is the best pitcher of this generation and, after the most grueling series since the Phillies and Astros wore on each other in the 1980 NLCS, now we know none are more gallant. The Dodgers engaged in five fierce games against the Nationals that set postseason records for pitching changes, hit batters, times of game and agita. All you need to know about the outcome was this: Kershaw pitched three times in the seven-day struggle. The Dodgers were 3–0 when he pitched, 0–2 when he didn’t.
Kershaw beat Max Scherzer in Game 1; he pitched two outs into the seventh inning of Game 4 on short rest; and he volunteered to close Game 5 just 48 hours and three time zones later, which he did by getting Washington’s best hitter, Daniel Murphy, on a pop-up and rookie Wilmer Difo on a strikeout with the two runners on base that could have ended the Dodgers’ season.
John Elway couldn’t win until he did. Michael Jordan didn’t win until he did. The same is true for Phil Mickelson. The sports media landscape is littered with quick-take artists. The hot-takers rush into the breach so quickly to define someone’s “legacy” that the word has been twisted and misshapen like molten iron.
Legacy is not a quick take. Legacy is what remains of a life’s work and passed to the next generation. It’s when the cake is fully baked. What people should be talking about when measuring athletes in their prime—and Kershaw is only 28 years old—is reputation, and reputation is an unfinished symphony, a work in progress.
So add this to the Kershaw oeuvre: In a season in which he missed 10 weeks with a back injury—“When I had a setback throwing a simulated game,” he told me, referring to a scare in July, “that’s when I wasn’t sure if I would make it back”—Kershaw put the Dodgers on his rebuilt back.
NLDS Game 5 will go alongside Madison Bumgarner in the 2014 World Series, Randy Johnson in the 2001 World Series and—yes, Nationals fans—Walter Johnson in the 1924 World Series among the most epic relief efforts by an ace starting pitcher. A Washington team still hasn’t won a playoff series since The Big Train won that Game 7, a drought of 92 years that is the longest among the current 28 major league cities.
No one saw this coming. Not Kershaw’s own manager, Dave Roberts, who actually had to check with the training staff if it were even advisable to let Kershaw enter the game after the lefthander volunteered his services. Neither did Washington manager Dusty Baker see this coming.
Poor Dusty; our Gene Mauch. Only Mauch managed more major league games without a World Series title than Baker (3,338). But not even Mauch endured this kind of cruelty in so much work done in vain. Baker has lost nine consecutive potential clinchers with three different teams: the Cubs, Reds and Nationals. He is 3–12 with a chance to clinch.
After the eighth in the string of nine heartbreaks, a 6–5 defeat in Game 4, Baker found one silver lining in the dark cloud that followed him. Asked about the Game 5 matchup, Baker said. “Yeah, I know Kershaw isn't pitching, thank God, you know what I mean.”
It wasn’t an act of God that caused Kershaw to haunt Baker again, but it was as much of an earthly effort that could be expected on a baseball field.
The Dodgers were leading Washington, 4–1, in the seventh when Nationals pinch-hitter Chris Heisey delivered a shock to their system: a two-run pinch-hit homer off reliever Grant Dayton. When Dayton then allowed a single to Clint Robinson, Roberts began another of his impressionistic paintings with his bullpen. He summoned closer Kenley Jansen, a converted catcher who had never obtained more than five outs in 409 career major league games. Nine outs from a closer? It sounded as preposterous as scheduled double-headers and World Series day games. Jansen labored through the rest of the inning just to keep the score at 4–3, needing 21 pitches.
Seeing Jansen’s heavy lifting, Kershaw—still in running shoes after Roberts told everyone before the game he wasn’t available—saddled up to his skipper and told him he was ready to pitch in relief.
“He threw 20 pitches in that seventh inning,” Kershaw said of Jansen, “and I just said, ‘I'm going to go get loose, see how I feel and I'll let you know, but I might be able to do this.’”
Roberts couldn’t believe it. He first checked with the training staff, fearful it would be putting Kershaw’s health at risk. They gave the green light, just as they did when Kershaw took the ball on short rest two days earlier.
The sight of Kershaw ambling out alone mid-inning from the third-base dugout, across leftfield and to the bullpen with his spikes on—his broad back covered by his Dodger blue jacket, walking as slowly and surely as a gunslinger with loaded munitions down the middle of Dodge—was as theatrical as baseball gets. All that was missing from the tableau was the plaintive whistle of a dry wind and the quiet bounce of tumbleweeds. Was that…. Could it possibly…. Yes, it was. It was Baker’s worst nightmare.
Roberts decided he would summon Kershaw only if the ninth inning reached the spot of Daniel Murphy, who has become Errol Flynn with a bat, the unbreakable swashbuckler of baseball. Of course, after a wheezing, sputtering Jansen—having thrown the most pitches of his life, 51—walked two batters, Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth, the game’s wheel of fortune circled back to Murphy, just as you knew it would.
One hundred sixty-seven games over seven months had come down to this: Kershaw on Murphy. This confrontation amounted to the game and the end of someone’s season, because Baker had only Difo to bat in the pitcher’s spot behind Murphy.
“I sure hope I get him out, yeah,” Kershaw said. “You know, he's probably the best hitter in the National League. He was out for I don't know how long for the regular season and came back in the series and just put the barrel on the ball every at-bat, basically.
“So it's a tough out right there. I think thankfully I missed my spot, honestly, and got in on him a little bit and got him to jam. But he's such a tough out and I think honestly, all you can do is just—all I did was just throw as hard as I can and hope he gets out.”
Kershaw drops in the word “honestly” as readily as many athletes do “um” or “at the end of the day.” In his case, the word is superfluous. Kershaw is everything you want a star athlete to be: accountable, hard-working, humble and, yes, honest.
The game was creeping toward one o’clock on the morning. Clocking in at four hours, 32 minutes, it would be the most exhaustive nine-inning playoff game ever staged.
Murphy took a mighty cut ... and popped up. In the Nationals’ dugout, Baker grimaced and twisted upon the ball leaving the bat with no hope, as if he had been stabbed in the back—again.
“You know, [I] wish they would have brought somebody else in, but they brought in one of their other horses,” Baker said. “And so I'd be interested to see, they won the war, but see the effects of Jansen and Kershaw when they get to Chicago.”
Kershaw won’t be able to start against the Cubs in the NLCS until Game 3. If the series goes the distance, he would be fresh for Game 7—that is, unless the Dodgers drain him further by pitching him on short rest in a Game 6 if facing elimination. The boundary of his resolve is no longer within sight.
The greatness of Kershaw had been unquestionable before these last seven days. The knock was that he didn’t pitch well enough in the postseason. But he now has pitched his team to more postseason wins on short rest than anybody in the wild-card era but Andy Pettitte. In the past four years he has made four postseason starts on short rest. Every other pitcher in baseball combined has done so only seven times.
The Nationals started Scherzer in Game 5, for instance, and not in Game 4, because Scherzer wasn’t going to throw on short rest. He had never done it in his major league life—not after a start—and he spoke openly about how pitching on short rest would compromise his routine and fitness for his next start. That’s no knock on Scherzer. It’s the way pitchers think today—or at least, pitchers not named Kershaw.
The best pitcher in baseball, in a year abbreviated by a bad back, kept his team alive by pitching on short rest, then came back 48 hours later to close out the series.
So please, don’t tell me Kershaw can’t pitch in the postseason, and don’t give me some nonsense about the “legacy” of a 28-year-old pitcher. Kershaw—like the Big Train, The Big Unit and his Dodgers doppelganger, Sandy Koufax—gave us a game that goes in the glass case of historical baseball games. Inscribed forever on its marble base is this commemoration: “The Kershaw Game, Oct. 13, 2016.”