Clayton Kershaw capped off a whale of a week on Sunday, tossing seven shutout innings en route to a 1–0 NLCS Game 2 victory just three days after saving Game 5 of the NLDS with a surprise ninth-inning relief appearance. The lefty rid himself of his seventh-inning demons by the skin of his teeth, and silenced those who have been critical of his ability to pitch in the postseason. Adrian Gonzalez provided the only offense Kershaw and closer Kenley Jansen would need with a solo shot to left-centerfield in the second, adding to his impressive postseason resume.
So, about Kershaw’s seventh—it almost ended in disaster.
Kerhaw, who entered having allowed 15 earned runs after the sixth inning in his postseason career over the span of 4 2/3 innings, was faced with the heart of the Cubs’ order. He looked uncharacteristically off, walking Anthony Rizzo on four pitches to begin the inning. Then, he mowed down Ben Zobrist on three straight fastballs (a poor at-bat), and got Addison Russell to fly out.
Poised to end his miserable seventh inning luck, Kershaw went toe to toe with the phenom, Javier Baez. On just the second pitch he saw, Baez drilled a 93 mph fastball to straightaway center, and hopped out of the batter’s box just as Sammy Sosa did so many times. Unfortunately for Baez, the skip could not propel the ball an extra 10 feet, and Joc Pederson would make the putout in center.
"I had a mini-stroke right there," Kershaw told Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal after the game.
The Baez scare aside, Kershaw fooled the Cubs time and time again. He carried a perfect game into the fifth, and didn’t allow an extra-base hit all evening. It was his most dominating performance of the postseason, and perhaps his best in his last three trips to the playoffs.
The knock on Kershaw that he can’t pitch in October took a big hit on Sunday, and the likelihood that the Dodgers could shock the world and knock off the Cubs looks a bit better.
In Game 1, it was on the basepaths that Javier Baez flaunted his baseball genius. In Game 2, it was on the edge of the rightfield grass.
That’s where Baez, with one out and runners on first and second in the sixth, disoriented Dodgers baserunners by letting a weak line drive drop just in front of him. Normally, runners are protected from such an act in this scenario by the infield fly rule. But Baez, recognizing in a matter of seconds that umpires wouldn’t be able to enforce the rule with the trajectory of the ball, grabbed it on a hop and went to second to begin an inning-ending double play.
From there, things went haywire, though the end result was achieved. It appeared as if Baez was a few seconds ahead of his teammates; Anthony Rizzo wandered off the first base bag, leaving shortstop Addison Russell momentarily without a clue as to where to go with the ball. But Baez used his mouth to direct Russell’s attention to Los Angeles first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who was caught between second and third.
It was yet another moment of brilliance in this postseason for the 23-year-old, who has showcased talents in each aspect of the game. Though he came up a few feet short of a game-breaking homer with two outs in the seventh, Baez was once again one of Chicago’s most important players on Sunday.
Something left to prove
Put bluntly, if the Dodgers didn’t win on Sunday, it would have been a concern. Sure, they were playing on the road, but they had Kershaw going for them, who was involved in all three of their Division Series wins.
On Sunday, despite a power outage, the Dodgers won yet another game on the back of Kershaw. The question now becomes whether they can win without him.
Barring Kershaw pitching on two days’ rest, we’re probably only going to see him once more, in Thursday’s Game 5. That means some combination of Kenta Maeda, who has been uninspiring in two starts this postseason, Rich Hill, who hasn’t been a whole lot better, and 20-year-old Julio Urias, who was solid in relief last series, will need to come up with at least two wins against one of the best offenses in baseball.
Is that possible? Well, sure, if the Dodgers hit like they’re capable of. But not only have they raised some concerns, they’ll have to face Jake Arrieta, and, eventually, Jon Lester again. Presumptive Rookie of the Year Corey Seager, regarded as the team’s best hitter, has struggled mightily this postseason, hitting .133 (though he’s gone deep twice). As a team, the Dodgers are hitting .232. The good news is they’re returning home, where they hit 101 of their 189 homers this year, and the better news is that the pressure will be on the Cubs after a split to begin the series.