It was about 30 minutes after he had won Game 5 of the 116th World Series, his second victory in it, one that pushed the Los Angeles Dodgers to the brink of their first championship in more than three decades. His hair long, his beard ever ratty, his face still cherubic, his resolve hardened, he hadn’t pitched his finest, and that was OK. Afterward, Cali had told him she was proud of him, and that was plenty.
A guy sticks around long enough, and you see him become the man he’s meant to be. Kershaw is 32 years old, past his prime, more craftsman than conqueror. And although there’s an almost-irresistible instinct to measure our greatest athletes against what they once were, and to nevertheless hold that as the idea of what they should be, it always felt unfair. Because for every unicorn who stares down Father Time and wins, a hundred others learn the vagaries of age, of regression, of a clock that ticks endlessly, and they don’t.
The acceptance phase is the hardest, and it’s where Kershaw, he of the worst October reputation this side of the house that gives out Mounds on Halloween, lives today. He isn’t what he once was, and he doesn’t need to be, because what he is impelled the Dodgers to a 4-2 win against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday night that left them one victory shy of their first championship since 1988 and him oh so close to getting sized for the ring that has eluded none of his pitching peers.
Here’s what Kershaw is: good enough, which is, when one is surrounded by the talent the Dodgers possess, good enough too. He is capable of excellence, and he is prone to failure, and he is usually closer to the former than the latter. He is not a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character: Kershaw and October Kershaw, transmogrifying into a fateful creature when the calendar turns. He is flawed, in need of careful handling, prone more to reliability than anything.
He is, in other words, a dad. And every October, it seems, reminds of that, because Kershaw is the sort of father who brings his kids up to the podium after good days. In 2017, when he still possessed the blessed arm that flung lightning bolts, Cali first sat alongside him at a postgame news conference. And in 2018, Charley joined them. Neither was anywhere to be seen in 2019, because Kershaw wouldn’t dare expose them to the frailty of baseball, which last year damn near broke him. He’d blown a lead, blown a series, and said: “Everything people say is true right now about the postseason.”
What they said was that he wasn’t meant for October, that he was a choker, that he didn’t have what it takes. No matter what he said, Kershaw never believed that. Nobody reaches the heights he has — three National League Cy Young awards, an MVP award, a regular-season career ERA of 2.43 — without the conviction of his ways. If there was some October bugaboo, be it mental or physical, it would not be impenetrable. He was a pitcher. And pitchers find their way.
This postseason has been his rejoinder. Altogether, 30⅔ innings, 23 hits, 5 walks and 37 strikeouts with a 2.93 ERA and four wins. In Game 5 of the World Series, 5⅔ innings, 5 hits, 2 runs, 2 walks and 6 strikeouts. Yeoman’s work for someone whose greatest attribute no longer is what his left arm can produce but the toil it takes to ensure it produces at its apex.
The appreciation cascaded through Globe Life Field on Sunday, with most of the 11,437 there wearing Dodger blue and bequeathing Kershaw something in what was presumably his last outing of 2020: a standing ovation. He had held the 3-0 lead the Dodgers spotted him. He worked around a rough third inning in which he yielded a pair of runs. He turned a first-and-third-with-no-outs mess in the fourth into a neat little escape act, securing the inning’s final out when he heard first baseman Max Muncy yell: “Step off!”
Behind Kershaw’s back, Rays outfielder Manuel Margot had taken off on a dead sprint, the first attempted straight steal of home in a World Series game since Lonnie Smith in 1982. Kershaw fired the ball home, just in time for catcher Austin Barnes to swipe a tag inches before Margot’s fingers slid across the plate. In the fifth, Kershaw would break the all-time record for strikeouts in the postseason. Come the sixth, he had turned two pitches into two outs when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts ascended the dugout steps and walked toward the mound.
And what greeted him was fascinating: boos. Not just catcalls or hisses. Real, actual, loud boos, from all corners of the stadium. It was October, and Dodgers fans were livid that Clayton Kershaw was being taken out of a game. So were the Dodgers infielders. They asked Roberts to stick with Kershaw. He refused. They wanted to believe Kershaw was his best self. Roberts believed Kershaw had done plenty.
As he walked off the mound, the cheers began. They grew louder. A 5⅔-inning, two-run outing is not typically the thing of which ovations are made, and yet it is just as infrequently made of a fastball that sits in the 91 mph range, too. This was thanks not just for Game 5 but for caring enough to make Game 5 possible — for not bowing out of the weirdness that is pandemic baseball and not resigning himself to the story others wanted to write for him.
“It feels pretty good. It feels pretty good,” Kershaw said. “Anytime you can have success in the postseason, it just means so much. That is what you work for. That is what you play for this month. I know what the other end of that feels like, too. I will definitely take it when I can get it.”
Roberts’ retreat to the dugout brought on another wave of jeers, even though this had been the plan all along, a plan Kershaw had grown to understand, because age for him might have an inverse relationship with talent but it has a direct one with wisdom. Kershaw, ever a dogged competitor, always wants more. He simply has grown to accept that more isn’t always possible or right.
The fortunes of Roberts have been inextricably tied to Kershaw. They have shared some of their worst moments, and because of that, Roberts didn’t deviate from the plan for Kershaw to face between 21 and 24 batters. After his 22nd hitter, having thrown 85 pitches, 56 of them for strikes, most on a slider that had seen far better days, Kershaw turned the ball over to Dustin May, whose fastball registers 10 mph higher on the radar gun than Kershaw’s.
“He just grinded,” Roberts said. “He willed himself to that point. And I will say, it wasn’t his best stuff, but he found a way to get outs and I give him all the credit.”
Joc Pederson and Max Muncy hit solo home runs, while Clayton Kershaw strikes out six batters in the Dodgers’ Game 5 win vs. the Rays.
For anyone who sees this as pedestrian because it isn’t up to some standard he himself long ago abandoned, consider: What Kershaw manages to do now, diminished, is still extraordinarily impressive. It’s just in a less obvious way. It’s a three-dimensional view of the pitcher — of where he is in time, what the reasonable expectations for that are, how he has evolved — in a world that gravitates toward the easiest evaluation, which is to digest numbers and spit them out absence of context.
This is no absolution of Kershaw. He has failed in October. He has blown games, series, seasons. In Game 5 of the 2017 World Series against Houston, his implosion might have cost the Dodgers a ring. In Game 5 of the 2018 World Series against Boston, he couldn’t stop the Red Sox’s coronation. In Game 5 of the 2020 World Series, though, the day after the Rays walked off the Dodgers in gut-shot fashion, Kershaw calmly salved wounds — his teammates’ day-old and his years-old.
Now, barring Roberts going off-script and calling upon Kershaw to pitch on short rest for the first time this season in a potential Game 7, it is up to the 27 other Dodgers to give Kershaw what he has done his best to give them. Never had he won two games in postseason series until he took Games 1 and 5 of this World Series. A victory in Game 6 on Tuesday or Game 7 on Wednesday would make take him off the list of three-time Cy Young winners without a championship. He’s the only one of 10. And of pitchers who have won at least four ERA titles but no World Series title. He’s one of 10 there, too. Likewise, 10 pitchers have won an MVP in the post-1961 expansion era, and Kershaw is the only one without a ring.
Sometime in the next 72 hours, all of that can go away, and it would bring him back into that room, sitting at the table, speaking to a camera but really to the world. He’d tell them what it finally feels like to be a champion, how all of this was so worth it. And right there alongside him would be Cali and Charley, amped up like they’ve got a Red Bull IV, because their daddy, the one who has finally grown into what he’s meant to be, had made them proud.
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