You could sense the demons lurking around Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw once again Sunday evening, in the inning that has haunted him throughout his postseason career.
The four-pitch walk to lead off the seventh. The dropped foul pop-up. The frenzied Wrigley Fieldcrowd now taunting him, “KER-Shaw. KER-Shaw. KER-Shaw.’’
It was as if every fan had Kershaw’s postseason stats memorized: A 28.93 ERA in the seventh inning, and a 3.06 ERA in every other inning in his career.
Then, for all of the world to witness, Kershaw snuffed out those ghosts of the past, dancing off the mound, into the arms of Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, and reminding everyone that this is the greatest pitcher on the planet, no matter what time of year.
Kershaw, pitching for the third time in six days, shut down the Chicago Cubs, 1-0, tying this best-of-seven National League Championship Series 1-1, with the series now moving to Los Angeles.
The chalk board in the visiting Wrigley clubhouse exposed just how confident the Dodgers are feeling.
“Keep Buying into the Process! We Will Win This Series.”
Kershaw, whose season was jeopardized by a two-month absence due to a herniated disk, has turned the unimaginable to the inevitable.
He has pitched four times in this postseason, and the Dodgers are 4-0.
The Dodgers are 0-3 when he doesn’t pitch.
There is no man in this postseason that means more to his team than Kershaw, who limited the Cubs to just two hits in seven innings, with first baseman Adrian Gonzalez providing the lone run with his second-inning homer, and Kenley Jansen closing the door by retiring all six batters he faced.
“It should surprise me what he’s doing,’’ Dodgers president Andrew Friedman says, “but being around him, the way he prepares, how he competes, it really doesn’t surprise me.
“It almost feels like I’m being too flippant about it, but I just know him well enough not to be surprised about it.’’
This is a man who has won three Cy Young Awards, and a National League MVP. If he stopped pitching tomorrow, he would be inducted into the Hall of Fame. The numbers he puts up year after year draw comparisons to the legendary Sandy Koufax.
Yet, it was his postseason struggles that turned him into a mere mortal in October. He entered this month with a 2-6 playoff record and 4.59 ERA.
Many ignored that the ERA was bloated by his relievers allowing nine of his 14 inherited runners to score.
Kershaw’s powerful reputation was sullied by a small October sample size, and there were folks actually buying into it, dismissing his greatness.
Right up until Sunday night, three days after closing out the Dodgers’ division-clinching game against the Washington Nationals just two days after he had started Game 4.
“I just never bought into that narrative,’’ Friedman said. “There’s nobody else in baseball I’d rather have on the mound than Clayton Kershaw. In a game in February. March. May. October. November.
“I have more confidence in him than any pitcher in baseball.’’
It was the identical thought process Roberts had when he sent him out for the seventh inning, ignoring the past results.
“He’s the best pitcher on the planet,’’ Roberts said, “so for me, the history, it has no bearing on anything for me. This is a new year, and he’s shown what he can do in the postseason. So I don’t think that anybody in that clubhouse cares about that narrative.’’
Still, those memories emerged when Kershaw walked Anthony Rizzo, who is hitting .043 this postseason. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt immediately called to the bullpen, getting Jansen ready.
Ben Zobrist’s foul pop-up fell harmlessly when catcher Yasmani Grandal got a late start tracking its flight and was charged with an error. Kershaw winced, then grinned in disbelief, but didn’t say a word. He struck Zobrist out looking on a fastball right over the middle of the plate.
“I think he was probably looking for something else,’’ Kershaw said, “and I got away with one there.’’
He induced a lazy fly ball from Addison Russell for the second out.
Now, up stepped Javier Baez, the star of this postseason, who broke up Kershaw’s perfect game with a two-out single in the fifth inning.
Grandal ran to the pitcher’s mound. The Dodgers’ infield joined him. Roberts ran out from the dugout, and Kershaw feared he was being pulled.
“That’s why I ran out there,’’ Grandal said, “before Doc [Roberts] got out there. I said, “There’s no way you’re coming out. You can get this guy out. You’re going to close this out.’’
Roberts trotted to the mound, looked at Kershaw, and listened.
“I had every intent to go out there, and get him and go to Kenley,’’ Roberts said. “But as I went out there, looked him in the eye …’’
Kershaw: “I can get this guy. I can get this guy.’’
Roberts: “At that point in time that’s all I needed to hear.’’
Kershaw, who abandoned his curveball, relying almost solely on fastballs and sliders, just missed on the first pitch. Ball 1. He fired a 93-mph fastball on the second pitch, Baez took a huge swing, and sent it soaring toward the center field wall.
“I thought it was out, for sure,’’ Kershaw said. “He hit it pretty good. (Roberts) is probably not going to trust me again after that, but fortunately, he hit it at somebody.’’
The ball sent center fielder Joc Pederson to the wall, where the ball landed into his glove, leaving 42,384 fans moaning in disbelief.
“I hit it well on the barrel,’’ Baez said, “but my hands were a bit out in front, so the ball died on the way.’’
It was the most beautiful sight the Dodgers have seen, and after escaping the inning, ended any possible drama or late-inning Cubs’ heroics when Jansen retired all six batters he faced.
“Seeing how Kersh takes this team on his back,’’ said Jansen, who recorded his first career two-inning save, “it gives me extra energy to try to get the job done.’’
Really, it’s Kershaw’s influence that has everyone on the Dodgers believing this is the year they end their 28-year World Series drought, replacing the Kirk Gibson moment with their own memories, and erasing their failures of the past.
“It should,’’ Roberts said. “I know he’s tired of hearing about it. It’s unfair. For us, I don’t think we care. But what this guy’s done, is digging deep, and I can’t say enough about Clayton Kershaw.’’
Kershaw got it done all right.
“I feel like every start, he has the chance to do something great,’’ Grandal said. “It’s just unbelievable to see him pitch, unbelievable to see him compete.
“That’s why I believe he’s the best pitcher in baseball.’’
Yes, in October, too.
This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale