Clayton Kershaw had been in this exact position before. He was in his home state of Texas, the World Series tied 2-2, and after a dominant outing in Game 1, he was throwing in Game 5 with a first-inning lead. And a legacy of playoff failure, coupled with a lengthy Dodgers title drought, weighed on his shoulders.
In this situation against the Astros in 2017, Kershaw turned in the worst start of his playoff career, as measured by championship win probability added. The Dodgers ace induced just one swing-and-miss on his breaking pitches—against a possible backdrop of stolen signs—and allowed six runs while fumbling multiple leads.
And in a repeat opportunity on Sunday night, with the 2020 World Series tied 2-2 and Kershaw back on the mound, there was a moment when his legacy seemed poised to unravel once again. The Dodgers had taken an early lead via a trio of hits in the first inning and a Joc Pederson homer in the second; the Rays scraped a couple runs back by bunching three hits of their own. Now it was the fourth inning, Dodgers ahead 3-2, but after two walks, a steal, and an error, runners stood on first and third with no outs.
On average, lineups with that favorable base-out state score about 1.8 runs; the Rays’ win expectancy rose to 59 percent, even though the Dodgers still held the lead. If there was ever a time for Kershaw to make a World Series statement—or, at least, another World Series statement, given his multiple Game 1 wins—it was now, in this jam, with the Dodgers’ lead slipping away for the second night in a row.
Kershaw made a statement indeed. First up came Joey Wendle, who took the first pitch and then popped up a fastball to the shortstop. Next was Willy Adames, who didn’t spend much longer in the batter’s box: Kershaw threaded a slider, fastball, and curve past the Rays shortstop, the last looping out of the zone to scatter Adames’s balance mid-swing.
Two outs, no runs in, crisis almost averted—and then, with Kevin Kiermaier at the plate, the tension exploded in an instant. Kershaw turned his back on third base and as he began his deliberate, protracted windup, Manuel Margot broke for home. Kiermiaer stepped back, catcher Austin Barnes stepped forward, and Kershaw stepped off the mound and fired home—avoiding a balk and catching Margot inches short of the plate for the third out of the inning, with no change to the score.
In Game 5 in 2017, Kershaw gave back leads via a bushel of hard-hit balls in a raucous Minute Maid Park. This time around, despite finding just as much trouble on the bases, Kershaw escaped—and his Dodgers won Game 5, 4-2, to move one win away from a title.
For detractors, Kershaw’s postseason struggles may not yet be fully overcome; he’ll still need to lift a trophy to fully erase the pain of various botched outings in the past decade. (And if the Rays win Game 6 and force a Game 7, well, this conversation might arise again should Kershaw pitch in relief.) But in the crucial inning in Game 5, and indeed this postseason overall, Kershaw has answered every criticism. In five starts in these playoffs, he is 4-1 with a 2.93 ERA and a 37-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. On Sunday, he became the MLB career leader in postseason strikeouts.
His Game 5 outing improved after he caught Margot at the plate. In the first four innings, Kershaw allowed the leadoff runner to reach base each time; after the close call in the fourth, he retired the next five Rays in order, before Dave Roberts removed his ace with the lead.
This is the 20th playoff series Clayton Kershaw has pitched in in his career.— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) October 26, 2020
This is the first time he has ever won two playoff games in the same series.
The oft-criticized starter did his job, and the oft-criticized bullpen followed suit. Dustin May, Víctor González, and Blake Treinen combined for 3 1/3 scoreless innings of relief, with Roberts acting aggressively to find the matchups he wanted and leaving struggling closer Kenley Jansen on the bench.
In support of the staff, meanwhile, Dodgers hitters took turns hammering Rays starter Tyler Glasnow, against whom batted balls left the bat at an average of 99.5 miles per hour. That’s the highest mark on record for any postseason pitcher. (Statcast data extends back to 2015.) Most prominent were Pederson’s second-inning homer and a follow-up from Max Muncy—who is slashing an outrageous .389/.522/.611 this series—in the fifth, when a 434-foot blast disappeared into the depths of the right-field stands.
OH MY WORD MAX MUNCY JUST DESTROYED THIS BALL pic.twitter.com/3gk97Lj4HN— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 26, 2020
The Dodgers’ journey is far from over. They’ll cede the starting pitcher advantage in Game 6 on Tuesday, with Tony Gonsolin facing Blake Snell, and the Rays’ formidable bullpen should be fully rested after an off day. But that coming disadvantage added all the more urgency Sunday, after a devastating Game 4 loss with the ace on the mound. Given another chance to win a crucial Game 5, Kershaw fulfilled his obligation. Throughout his playoff career, he’s often been sunk by just one bad inning in a stream of zeroes on the scoreboard; on Sunday, he maintained that zero with runners on the corners, and that one bad inning never appeared.