Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Bill Plaschke: It's autumn yet Kershaw has done anything but fall

CHICAGO — The haunting is over. The gloom has lifted.

It's the middle of October on a Midwestern baseball field and a brilliant light has cut through a legacy of madness to descend upon a Dodger shedding an unsightly autumn skin.

It's the middle of the playoffs, and Clayton Kershaw is still standing.

It's two games deep into the National League Championship Series and, to be exact, Kershaw is currently standing on the backs of the straining Chicago Cubs.

It's three wins from the World Series, and Kershaw has finally, officially obliterated three seasons of playoff troubles after powering and pushing and willing his pitches past the Cubs on Sunday in a 1-0 victory at Wrigley Field to even the NLCS at one game apiece.

"Best pitcher on the planet," said manager Dave Roberts.

"Best baseball player on the planet," said Justin Turner.

He has been better than all that during a postseason in which the Dodgers have jumped on his large back, placed their mostly ordinary arms around his thick neck and hung on for a ride that now takes them back to Dodger Stadium for three games next week.

"It's fun when you win, so yeah, I mean, I'm enjoying it right now," said the understated Kershaw on Sunday evening in words that, for him, equate to a justifiable scream of joy.

So far this postseason, Kershaw has pitched in four games and the Dodgers have won all four games. He has not pitched in three games, and the Dodger have lost all three games.

Oh, how he has carried them, on full rest, on short rest and out of the bullpen. He has carried them in Los Angeles when it started, in Washington when it nearly ended, and finally on Sunday on the North Side of Chicago through the one moment where he has always stumbled.

Beneath a scraggly beard and sweat-soaked hair, Kershaw carried the Dodgers through a seventh inning that seemingly every autumn has stunned him like a snowstorm on Halloween.

Two postseasons ago he struggled in the seventh inning twice against the St. Louis Cardinals. Last season it happened once against the New York Mets. Then even this postseason, he tired in Game 4 against the Nationals.

Sunday night it was all happening again, yet when folks look back at his completed work — seven innings, two hits, six strikeouts, zero runs — they will most celebrate that seventh inning.

"Really just kind of couldn't look up for a minute for air," said Kershaw.

Well, the rest of us looked up, and here's what we saw.

With the Dodgers leading 1-0 on Adrian Gonzalez's second-inning homer, Kershaw began the inning by walking Anthony Rizzo on four pitches, the same Rizzo who had just two hits in the postseason.

Kenley Jansen was warming up in the bullpen, the Wrigley Field crowd was suddenly clamoring, and then Ben Zobrist lofted a high pop foul that dropped harmlessly behind home plate between catcher Yasmani Grandal and Gonzalez.

Goodness. Another bit of seventh-inning ridiculousness? Not this time. Kershaw took a huge breath and, two pitches later, struck out Zobrist looking on a 94 mph fastball.

"Just kind of kept going through it," said Kershaw.

Addison Russell then flied to left on the third pitch, bringing up one more hurdle, perhaps an insurmountable hurdle, the hot-hitting Javier Baez.

Sure enough, Roberts came to the mound to pull Kershaw for Jansen. And sure enough, Kershaw shooed him away.

"He said, 'We can get this guy, I can get this guy,' " said Roberts, who will soon be named National League manager of the year because he spent all summer making smart, gutsy moves like this one.

Two pitches later, Kershaw kept his promise and got that guy, even if it was on a long fly ball that nearly reached the centerfield fence before being caught by Joc Pederson. The breathtaking shot left Kershaw staggered and staring, his hands on his knees, his head drooping at what he thought was certain defeat.

"I thought it was out, for sure," said Kershaw. "He hit it pretty good."

Not this night. Not this October. After Kershaw returned to the dugout, Rick Honeycutt heard him cough, at which point Kershaw explained the depths of his worry.

"I'm trying to get my throat out of my stomach," Kershaw told Honeycutt.

He can breathe much easier now and for the rest of the postseason. He has shown the world, and himself, that he can pitch big in the biggest games in October. The nagging narrative has been erased.

"It should," said Roberts. "I know he's tired of hearing about it. It's unfair. What this guy's done digging deep, I can't say enough about Clayton Kershaw."

Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' baseball boss, never believed the history lesson in the first place.

"I just never bought the narrative," he said. "There's no one else I'd rather have on the mound than Clayton Kershaw. In a game in February, March, May, October, November, it doesn't matter the month, there's no pitcher in baseball I'd rather have on the mound."

Ironically, Kershaw's biggest setback this summer may have set him up for what is so far his greatest October. Because he missed more than two months with a back injury, he pitched only 149 innings this year after averaging 2221/3 innings in each of the previous three seasons.

He used to be visibly worn out on an October mound. Now, well, did you see where his seventh-inning strikeout of Zobrist came on that 94 mph fastball?

"Maybe in some ways that injury was a blessing in disguise," said Turner. "Obviously, the arm feels great and everything is coming out crisp. He's probably not having as much fatigue as most guys are having."

In a cramped but content Dodgers clubhouse Sunday, Turner was informed of the statistics that the Dodgers have won every postseason game with Kershaw, and lost every postseason game without him.

"Doc!" a smiling Turner suddenly shouted, nodding toward Roberts' office. "We need Clayton to throw on Tuesday!"

Well?

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