LOS ANGELES—Sometimes life can feel like a series of small disappointments. So little goes as planned: There’s a backup on the route Waze promised would be faster. The grocery store is out of the avocados on which the whole recipe depended. We can go years without seeing the best players on the biggest stage. The odds are stacked against that in baseball in many ways—a draft system that rewards failure and places amateur stars on bad teams, the simple math that only 50 men will play in the World Series each year. Even when the team is good, the cruel—and beautiful—reality of the baseball postseason is that no man can conquer it alone.
And Clayton Kershaw has tried. Since his debut at 20 in 2008, he has played largely for teams that were just good enough to be disappointing. It's hard for a near miss to seem like a magical underdog run when you play in the nation’s second-biggest market. The Dodgers have lost four NLCSes and another two NLDSes in his nine seasons before this one, and Kershaw had pitched on short rest in all but one of them. He demands the ball and refuses to give it back, even when he's heaving with exhaustion. He is the greatest pitcher of his generation—and he’s doing his best to lose that modifier—but a narrative took hold: Clayton Kershaw can't pitch in the playoffs.
His teammates are tired of it. “It's unfair,” says righthander Brandon McCarthy. Kershaw is tired of it. “It felt good to get through seven, if that's what you're asking,” he answered a reporter who inquired about his anxiety level late in the game.
That's really where the issue has been. Kershaw, already a perfectionist, tends to add a little something in the playoffs—a mile or so to his fastball, a little more focus on each pitch. The result is that the horse who has twice led the majors in complete games tires earlier in October. Unfortunately for him, this weakness has generally come at the time his team relied on him the most. Before this year the rotation was generally shallow and the bullpen untrustworthy. Manager Dave Roberts, and Don Mattingly before him, tried to get the extra out from Kershaw to shorten the bridge to closer Kenley Jansen. It usually did not work. That unsightly 4.40 postseason ERA entering Game 1 of the World Series was actually 3.21 through six innings and 18.36 afterward.
“We're talking about a couple times if he gets pulled at the right time, the narrative's different,” says McCarthy. “He's been dominating. He's held to a different standard.”
Tuesday night Kershaw proved why. He was a defiant genius on the mound, blowing fastballs by the best fastball-hitting team in the majors. He retired 21 of the 24 batters he faced. He threw only 83 pitches in seven innings and did not allow a walk. The Astros had struck out as many as 10 times against a single pitcher twice all season. Kershaw whiffed 11. The best-slugging team in the game produced one extra base hit, an Alex Bregman home run that tied the game at one before Los Angeles came storming back to win 3–1.
And that was the difference: Finally someone else did some storming. At least a half-dozen times per day a Dodger answers a question with “It's a different guy every night,” and you can forgive them for being excited about that. It's new to them. Tuesday’s heroes were, as they often have been, third baseman Justin Turner and centerfielder Chris Taylor, who each contributed a home run. Righthander Brandon Morrow, a non-roster invitee in spring who has been a revelation in the fireman role, locked down the eighth before Jansen sealed it. On Friday the Dodgers will start Yu Darvish, a deadline acquisition whose impact comes both from what he does on the mound and from what he allows Kershaw to do: start on regular rest.
It sounds simple, but to win the World Series you need all or most of your players to play well at the same time. So we watch forlornly as the Mariners’ Felix Hernández and the Angels’ Mike Trout trudge through meaningless September games and clear out their lockers before sweater weather arrives. Think of how many classic Ken Griffey Jr. moments we missed, or Barry Bonds, or Ernie Banks. Kershaw had a chance to go that way, too—a great player wasted because his teams could never quite put it together when it mattered. We watch sports to see glory achieved. No one remembers the guy who lost four times in the NLCS. Instead these Dodgers did put it together, helping bring him to this moment, and no matter how it ends for them, we are all the luckier for it.
“It's fun now,” Kershaw said as he shook the water from his hair and left the clubhouse after the game. Yes it is.