CHICAGO—It had been 36 days since the Cubs were held to so few hits and just 72 hours since Clayton Kershaw last appeared in a game. In the calculus of baseball, we have now proven that the limit of the Dodgers’ ace approaches infinity.
When Kershaw left Sunday night’s 1–0 Dodgers win after the seventh inning, he’d allowed just two hits. He’d thrown 201 pitches since Tuesday—seven of which came in Thursday’s relief appearance—and warmed up for three different games. In the 91 pitches he’s tossed on short rest over the past four days, he’s allowed just three runners on base. That is to say: He’s been unstoppable.
Sunday night, on just two days rest, Kershaw’s fastball was as sharp as ever, his slider effective; only his curveball showed signs of fatigue, and so he simply cut down on dealing it. He was perfect through 4 2/3 innings and knocked the wind out of a lineup that’s been sluggish at times but has produced clutch hit after clutch hit these playoffs, sending the Cubs on their way to Los Angeles with the NLCS tied and a more-than-likely date for Game 5 on Thursday.
The NLCS should pass through Kershaw once more, and whether the Cubs can figure out his stuff may determine their fate.
In a subdued clubhouse after Game 2, Chicago catcher Miguel Montero offered no excuses. He didn’t face Kershaw, but he watched his teammates look at—and miss—strike after strike. "You're facing that type of pitcher,” he said, “you've got to be ready to hit strikes, and he was pumping strikes. You go to the plate and see pitches, you're going to find yourself on the bench, 0–3, because you strike out." And so the Cubs swung—and failed to connect, their most promising ball of the night coming on a curveball and Javier Baez flyout to deep center field. "If you're going to sit back and be 0–2 right away, if that's the case, you've got to hit,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who went 0 for 3, explained.
Going into the game, it was impossible to know what to expect from Kershaw. There’s no script for an ace closing out a game and then facing baseball’s most imposing lineup three days later. When he came out sharp early, there was still cause for Chicago to hope for fatigue, for a breakdown, but none came. Even in the seventh inning, which has been Kershaw’s playoff hellscape (he came into Sunday with a 23.8 ERA in that frame), he recovered from a leadoff walk to Rizzo by striking out Ben Zobrist and inducing two fly-ball outs. "The thing I was really curious about,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, “was velocity and location, and he had both."
For the Dodgers, Sunday’s game was a must-win—in that it guaranteed a Thursday Game 5, and likely another Kershaw start before this thing is over. And with the Cubs set to roll out Jake Arrieta on Tuesday (albeit against Rich Hill and his 2.12 regular-season ERA) and John Lackey on Wednesday, the probable Kershaw-Jon Lester matchup in the final game in Los Angeles has to give the Dodgers some comfort.
Rizzo did point out Sunday that he feels the Cubs could have an advantage facing Kershaw for the second time this series—but with a qualifier. This is the postseason, where nothing makes sense, and barring further theatrics the ace they’ll see will be on full rest. (In fact, it’ll be just the second time the Cubs have seen Kershaw this year; he did not face them at all in the regular season.)
With Sunday’s outing, Kershaw lowered his career postseason ERA to 4.39, a far cry from his regular-season 2.37 mark. Still, it’s hardly the stuff of horror that his playoff resume is made out to be, and the Cubs, who have batted a collective .214 this October, can’t bear his inconsistent postseason past in mind. The biggest obstacle standing between them and the World Series is a 6'4" lefty whose curveball will be back in form by Thursday.