Dodgers save Kershaw for Game 6, and now they'll need him
LOS ANGELES (AP) Clayton Kershaw gripped a baseball in his left hand and grimaced while he watched Game 5 of the NL Championship Series from the dugout.
The Los Angeles Dodgers' best pitcher was ready and eager, and he was sitting on three days of rest. Manager Dave Roberts could have deployed him Thursday night in Chavez Ravine and probably again in relief at Wrigley Field.
Roberts declined to play his ace, instead holding his top card for the weekend. The Dodgers decided to rely on rookie Kenta Maeda and their busy bullpen against the NL's best offense.
Those pitchers hung in for the first three hours, but eventually proved to be no match for Jon Lester in the Chicago Cubs' 8-4 victory. Los Angeles now trails the NLCS 3-2 after getting outscored 18-6 in two straight home games.
But the Dodgers didn't sound discouraged as they packed up for their flight.
''We can grab that momentum by one name,'' Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. ''Kershaw.''
Although Roberts has already proven unafraid to do unorthodox things with his pitchers in October, he stuck to a conventional plan to save Kershaw for Game 6.
And instead of pitching to clinch a pennant Saturday night, Kershaw must attempt to save the Dodgers' season again.
''We've got Clayton going in Game 6, so that's a game we expect to win,'' Roberts said.
Kershaw volunteered to pitch Game 5, but Roberts had several reasons to turn him down.
Roberts figured he would need to start Maeda at some point in the next three games, and he hoped the home crowd would benefit the inconsistent Japanese right-hander. With a day off Friday, Roberts also knew he could go deep into his bullpen - which has thrown a majors-high 43 innings in the postseason - with no repercussions.
''It's not an elimination game,'' Roberts said after Game 4. ''And I think the accumulation of (Kershaw's) usage over the last ten days plays a factor in our decision.''
Instead of pitching on three days' rest in Game 5, Kershaw will be pitching on a luxurious five days' rest in Game 6. Although the three-time NL Cy Young Award winner already has pitched 19 1-3 innings in the postseason, a midseason injury kept him off the mound for 2 1/2 months, leaving his arm with much less accumulated action than in a normal season - 168 1-3 innings combined this year, compared to 246 1-3 last season.
Kershaw shrugs off that notion, saying he feels pretty much the same as he did in previous Octobers. The biggest difference is that Kershaw, who acquired a reputation for postseason struggles over the past several seasons, has begun to erase that reputation this fall while he attempts to reach his first World Series.
''That's who you want in your decision game,'' Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager said. ''We're looking forward to the battle.''
After pitching decently in his two starts in the NL Division Series against Washington, Kershaw dominated the Cubs with seven innings of two-hit ball in Game 2, and closer Kenley Jansen finished off a 1-0 victory.
Regardless of the success of this call, Roberts has made a series of canny decisions in the postseason. His clever pitching staff management in the decisive Game 5 of the NLDS against Washington thrilled long-suffering fans who found manager Don Mattingly too reactive.
Roberts used setup man Joe Blanton in the third inning, kept Jansen in for 51 pitches and seven outs, and went to Kershaw to close out a 4-3 thriller.
Although Kershaw wasn't chosen for Game 5, Roberts clearly didn't have much faith in the alternative, pulling Maeda after just 3 2-3 innings and 76 pitches.
Maeda trailed 1-0 after three batters in Game 5, but after striking out two Cubs to end the first, he held them without a hit until Javier Baez's leadoff double in the fourth. Moments later, Roberts curiously pulled him with Lester coming up for Chicago.
Roberts said he thought Maeda's stuff was fading, and he decided to rely on his high-mileage bullpen.
''I was a little surprised,'' Maeda said through a translator.
The Dodgers' bullpen kept it even until the sixth, when Addison Russell hit a tiebreaking two-run homer off Blanton, one of Roberts' most reliable arms until recently.
The wheels fell off for Los Angeles in Chicago's five-run eighth inning, turning a tense game into a second straight blowout victory. The Cubs are one win away from a chance to end the championship drought that dwarfs all others, but Kershaw will finally get another shot to shut them down.
''We all know what we have in front of us with Kershaw going into Game 6,'' Cubs lefty Jon Lester said after his win Thursday. ''Hopefully he's not the good Kershaw, and we get kind of the mediocre guy that gives up a few runs and we're able to hold them where they're at.''
The Dodgers are eager to see their ace at his best.
''We have Kershaw going the next game, which we're excited about,'' said Blanton, who gave up two homers and five runs to the Cubs in Game 1 after four scoreless appearances against the Nationals. ''Our backs are against the wall, but we kind of like that. We've been there the whole year. We were in this situation in Washington, too. Maybe it's where we need to be.''