CHICAGO—The ink, from a blue marker hours earlier on the dry erase board inside the Dodgers' clubhouse, had begun to fade, but its message was even more indelible after the unprecedented history Clayton Edward Kershaw authored at ancient Wrigley Field on Sunday night.
“Keep Buying into The Process,” it said. “We Will Win This Series.”
Winning the National League Championship Series is not possible for the Dodgers unless they win the games in which Kershaw pitches. Game 2 was a must-win for Los Angeles, seeing that the Cubs haven’t lost four out of five games since before the All-Star break.
Not only did Kershaw, pitching for the fourth time in 10 days, win the must-win game, 1–0; but he also started the first shutout by a visiting team in the 35-game postseason history of Wrigley Field. It was the night of Kershaw the clinician, especially with his fastball: He threw a higher dosage of fastballs than normal (60.98%, the most he's used that pitch in his past 55 starts) and missed the strike zone with only 13 of his 50 heaters.
To watch Kershaw pitch like this—in control, clinical, oddly cool for the high-revving competitor—was to see a pitcher who had crossed the Rubicon of postseason baseball. His vessel across the wide, choppy waters had been his twin work in elimination games in the NLDS, including a save in Tuesday's Game 5 in Washington, 48 hours after he had started Game 4 in Los Angeles. To save the season twice, once as a starter and once as a volunteer relief worker after manager Dave Roberts said “absolutely not” to the idea of using him that day, gave him the comfort of being a fully made pitcher.
“His bullpen before the game was almost like a side day,” Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. “He commanded everything, but there was not much effort to do it. Clayton typically throws his bullpen just like a game. This time it was like a game, but just not to the highest level of effort. He was ... controlled.”
Sandy Koufax made his voyage to the better side of pitching in spring training of 1961, when, on a trip to Orlando, Fla., for a game at which none of the Dodgers’ coaching staff attended, a wild-throwing Koufax eased up on his effort. In his words, he “took the grunt out of my fastball.” Thus the Hall of Fame portion of his career was born.
Kershaw’s past postseason troubles were born out of the grunt on his fastball. He put too much responsibility on himself to carry the team, and when he found himself in jams he often stopped pitching and started trying to bully hitters with his A+ heater. He made mistakes with the exertion.
The Kershaw who took the mound in NLCS Game 2 Sunday night was a wholly different pitcher. Honeycutt, who has seen every one of his starts, knew it all night.
“There was a calmness about him today,” Honeycutt said. “Maybe the body fatigue from the past 10 days kept the edge off him. It’s nice to have an edge, too. But tonight he didn’t need that edge to him. He was just calm all night.
“You know, I went into the [video] room and looked at his pitches. The quality of his fastball down was amazing. Just one after another. In a word, he was terrific."
The light-hearted calm of Kershaw especially was evident upon his last pitch, one of only two mistakes he made with his 50 fastballs. (The first mistake had come on his first pitch of the second inning, which Ben Zobrist lined to leftfield for an out.) This fastball was a 93-mph cookie to Javier Baez with the tying run on first base. Centerfielder Joc Pederson caught it with his back near the ivy.
Kershaw let out a wry smile, like the kid who knew he just got away with some mischief. He laughed at his fortune. Then, when he sat down next to Honeycutt in the dugout, knowing his night was over, Kershaw cleared his throat with theatrical force.
“Sorry,” he said to his coach, “I’m trying to get my throat back out of my stomach.”
Kershaw long has been the best pitcher on the planet. His control is so good that when he walked Anthony Rizzo in the seventh inning, it was the first time in 581 batters dating back to early April that he had walked a batter on four pitches. And yet such a control artist also is the top swing-and-miss starting pitcher in the game.
Until last year, though, critics could howl at Kershaw's lack of superlatives in the postseason. And maybe those demons were haunting him again in the seventh inning when, following the walk to Rizzo, catcher Yasmani Grandal dropped a high foul pop-up for an error. But Kershaw calmly whiffed Zobrist and retired Addison Russell on a fly ball. Manager Dave Roberts then walked to the mound. “When he left [the dugout],” Honeycutt said, “I thought he was going to make the call [to the bullpen]."
"I had every intent to go out there and get him and go to Kenley [Jansen]," said Roberts. Kershaw talked Roberts into staying in the game, then retired Baez on the long fly.
Now look at what Kershaw has done in his past five postseason games:
• Beat the Mets in an NLCS elimination game last year on short rest.
• Beat Max Scherzer and the Nationals in a marquee Game 1 NLDS matchup this year.
• Pitched 6 2/3 innings on short rest in NLDS Game 4 in another Dodgers win with their season on the line.
• Saved yet another elimination game, Game 5 of the NLDS, on one day of rest.
• Started the first postseason shutout by a visiting team against the Cubs since the 1918 World Series (games in Chicago were played at Comiskey Park that year).
Los Angeles is defined by simple math. In their past ten postseason games, the Dodgers are 5–0 when Kershaw pitches and 0–5 when he doesn’t.
To win a 1–0 postseason game is one of the proudest medals a pitching general can pin on his dress uniform. Kershaw now has one. But all along he has been historically great in the regular season at winning low-scoring games. Kershaw is 22–45 lifetime with just one or two runs of support, a phenomenal .328 winning percentage with such a small margin of error. It is such an outstanding record that only three pitchers with at least 75 career starts ever won such low-scoring duels at a higher rate: Walter Johnson (.337), Dead Ball Era pitcher Lefty Tyler (.354) and the incomparable Koufax (.378).
Kershaw still hasn’t pitched in a World Series yet, so his resume remains a work in progress. But his next start, because the Dodgers play bullpen games whenever someone else gets the ball, is another must-win for Los Angeles—maybe literally so if the Dodgers lose Games 3 and 4.
If Los Angeles is down three games to one entering Game 5 in Dodger Stadium on Thursday, do the Dodgers dare ask him to save the season on short rest for a third time? Do they pitch him for a fifth time in 14 days?
Presented with that possibility, one Dodgers staffer remarked, “It’s a good idea. You might have to. He didn’t throw many pitches tonight , so I guess it’s possible. But we’re not close to thinking about those things yet. Hopefully we’re not in that situation.”
Kershaw is a relentless worker and grinder. He made it back this season from being out for 10 weeks with a herniated disk, an injury that caused him to doubt whether he would pitch again at all this year. The injury and the workload these past 10 days have given him a new perspective on pitching in the postseason. The twist of this turn is that just when Kershaw stopped feeling like he had to carry the team, that’s exactly what is happening.