ARLINGTON, Texas — Clayton Kershaw has been a major league pitcher for almost 13 years and a father for nearly six. In that time, his children have seen transcendent success and crushing failure. Five-year-old Cali was born the day before Sandy Koufax presented her dad with his third National League Cy Young Award, the 2014 edition, and the NL MVP award. Three-year-old Charley was not quite a year when his father blew leads of four runs and then three runs in Game 5 of the ’17 World Series. Ten-month-old Cooper has been alive just long enough to see his dad produce his best season since that stunning ’14.
Until Sunday, none of them had watched their father walk off a postseason mound, work finished, to a standing ovation.
After it was over and the Dodgers had beaten the Rays 4–2 to take Game 5 of the World Series and move 27 outs from their first title in 32 years, the MLB Network crew asked Kershaw to do an on-field interview near third base. He was about to oblige—and then he caught sight of his kids and his wife, Ellen, waving from their suite along the third-base line. He peeled away and darted over to them. He brought Cali and Charley with him to his postgame press conference, occasionally delivering half-hearted entreaties for them to stop interrupting. But he beamed the whole time.
“I think any dad just wants their kids to be proud of them,” he said. “Cali told me she was tonight. I’ll take that.”
Kershaw knows that people believe he cannot pitch in the postseason. At his worst moments, he agrees with them. He has produced a few October gems, but in those games he has almost always been removed between innings. When he leaves the mound mid-frame, he is usually trudging off it, having given up the tying or go-ahead run. He last left a postseason game under these circumstances in 2009, before he and Ellen were married. He is 32; even if he plays until he is 45, it will be difficult for him to erase that narrative.
But this October, he has rewritten portions of it. His five starts this postseason have lowered his overall playoff ERA to 4.19 from 4.44. On Sunday, as his family looked on, he threw 5 ⅔ innings of two-run ball to bring his 2020 playoff ERA to 2.93. He struck out six. He foiled an attempted steal of home, despite being blind to the play as a left-hander. He lacked the crisp stuff he had displayed in Game 1, when he struck out eight in six innings, but he minimized damage and avoided the big inning that has so often plagued him.
Manager Dave Roberts had decided before the game, and told Kershaw before the sixth, that he would face 21 hitters. The ace jogged to the mound for that frame having faced 19. Two pitches later, he had two outs.
Kershaw’s postseason failures tend to fall into one of three categories: times he was not good enough, times the team asked too much of him and times he was not good enough and the team asked too much of him. Over the past half-decade or so, we have mostly seen games from the latter two buckets.
Roberts trotted to the mound, as they had agreed he would, after hitter No. 21. The 11,437 in attendance—11,430 or so of whom seemed to be Los Angeles fans—booed him lustily. Kershaw and the infielders lobbied for a longer leash. Third baseman Justin Turner appeared to insist, “He can get the m------------!” In some years, Roberts might have reconsidered. Kershaw might have faltered. We might have ended up with the indelible image of a decade of Octobers: Kershaw collapsed in the dugout, head in his hands, staring vacantly at what he had wrought.
Roberts took the ball. “I love the way you compete,” he said. “That’s it. Finish the game cheering on your teammates.”
Afterward, the manager explained, “Fans, players get caught up in emotion. And I’m emotional. But I still have to have clarity on making decisions, because ultimately my job is to help the Dodgers win the World Series.”
This season, the Dodgers have decided they have a better chance of doing that if they ask just a little bit less of Kershaw. For the first time in his career, he has not pitched on short rest or in relief.
“To his credit, he will do whatever we ask,” Roberts said. “I don’t know many pitchers that would do that. But in this situation, in this case, we’ve used him more conventional, and he’s responded really well. We’re very lucky to have him, and I couldn’t be happier that the postseason he’s had mirrors who he is as a pitcher. He deserves it and it’s great.”
There is a lightness to Kershaw this October. Cali and Charley are old enough that they will remember some of these moments. He hopes the image they retain will be one of their father triumphant, not traumatized. He made that more likely on Sunday.
By the end of his press conference, he had sent the children out into the hallway to wait for him. “My kids are a little tired, if you can’t tell,” he said, smiling.
Clayton Kershaw, ace, finished discussing his outing. “Last question,” he whispered to Cali and Charley midway through his final answer. And then Clayton Kershaw, father, headed out of the interview room and into their arms.