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It Started With a Whisper

With a stunning ninth-inning outing, Clayton Kershaw propelled his Dodgers to the NLCS and exorcised his playoff demons

Getty Images
Getty Images

What other way could it have ended?

I mean, other than all of the ways, each and every single more obvious scenario, the hundreds upon thousands of likelier ballgames that ended without heart palpitations, without gasps, without Harold Reynolds being set straight live on air, and without every mortal soul in Nationals Park brought to his or her feet to stand, still and silent, for batter after batter after batter?

Other than all those ways, how else could Game 5 of the National League Division Series between the Dodgers and Nationals have ended? Of course it was Rich Hill, poor Rich Hill, getting yanked after just 2 2/3 innings. Of course there was a 66-minute seventh inning, one that saw the Dodgers and the Nationals cycle through a collective 13 pitchers. Of course that inning concluded only following the arrival of L.A. closer Kenley Jansen — early enough, finally, to satisfy those who’ve begged traditionalist managers all postseason long to rethink how they use their closers — who wound up recording a career-high seven outs on a career-high 51 pitches, just four fewer than Hill had managed.

And then, of course — of course — it was him, Clayton Kershaw, perhaps the greatest pitcher in the game today and also one of the unluckiest in October, trotting out to the mound, winding up, and recording the last two outs in the Dodgers’ 4–3 win. How else would the Dodgers ever have moved on to face the Cubs in the NLCS, except in the weirdest and most dramatic fashion, the one that finally vindicated Kershaw?

The three-time Cy Young Award winner has not had good luck in the postseason. You knew this. He knew this. The Dodgers knew this, and the Nationals sure as hell did, too. On Thursday morning, his postseason record stood at 3–6 with a 4.83 ERA over 15 appearances, a reflection of bad timing, errant bullpens, the odd mistake, and pure, old rotten luck. In Tuesday’s Game 4, Kershaw gave up five runs in 6 2/3 innings; in Game 1 he had surrendered three runs in five innings.

The Nationals also knew very well that his postseason struggles were a fluke — that the narrative only mask the ace’s ability for only so long: After Tuesday’s Game 4, Washington manager Dusty Baker thanked the Lord himself that Kershaw wouldn’t be pitching.

Except, except, except. After a seventh inning in which babies were born, had vibrant childhoods, got boring office jobs, and passed away quietly at their desks, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts didn’t have a lot of options. He kept soon-to-be free agent (a curious coincidence, surely) Jansen in the game long past the point at which a less desperate — or more reasonable — manager might have pulled the plug: Long past Jansen’s usual workload, past when his fastball slipped, past when his pitches meandered closer and closer to where the Nationals, just one run back in the ninth inning, wanted them.

It started with a whisper. Kershaw is in the dugout wearing a hoodie, maybe. Then: Kershaw is in the dugout, wearing a warm-up jacket. But who could believe it? Who would? Kershaw pitched two days ago on three days’ rest; he is still, by his own admission, recovering from an injured back that placed him on the 60-day disabled list earlier this season. On the Fox Sports 1 broadcast, Reynolds dismissed the possibility out of hand: “No way. He’s not throwing.”

He did. You know this, too: Kershaw asked for the ball. He retired Daniel Murphy and pinch hitter Wilmer Difo, the most ferocious bat Baker had left to summon. And he recorded his first save in a decade, having last notched one back when he played against the Gulf Coast League Nationals and tossed to catcher Kenley Jansen (really). He propelled the Dodgers to the NLCS and cleared his name at last.

Afterward, Kershaw bounded around the clubhouse, soaked in champagne. Above him, thousands of very quiet Washington fans trudged their way out of yet another stadium in yet another postseason with yet more rally towels to tuck away in drawers. A group of fans in Dodger blue crowded by the visitors’ dugout, shouting KEN-LEY JAN-SEN!

Kershaw was asked whether he was worried about injury as he took the ball in the ninth inning. His response: If the team lost, they’d go back home anyway. “So what does it really matter?”

In other words: What other way could it have ended?

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Clayton Kershaw’s last save came when he was playing for the Gulf Coast League Nationals; he was playing for the Dodgers affiliate and against the Nationals team.