Clayton Kershaw climbed atop a plastic cooler and hoisted a green bottle of Korbel Brut. Below him heaved a delirious crowd of teammates, the 2017 Dodgers, the group who brought the National League pennant back to Los Angeles. Kershaw wiped the alcohol from his eyes and gazed upon the scene inside the visitors’ batting cage at Wrigley Field.
“You are way too dry!” he shouted. “You are way too dry!”
Kershaw sprayed his bottle until it was empty and then descended into the throng, joyous to take part as they celebrated clinching the franchise’s first World Series berth since 1988 with an 11-1 victory over the Cubs in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. A 28-season drought ended in a hail of home runs from Enrique Hernandez, strikeouts collected by Kershaw and the relentless charge of this Dodgers team.
After so many years in which his organization asked him to play the savior, Kershaw reaped the benefit of an offensive bounty on Thursday. Hernandez supplied a trio of homers, including a third-inning grand slam that transformed the ballpark into a tomb and a two-run blast in the ninth that turned the Dodgers dugout into a mosh pit. They led by seven runs after three innings and by nine midway through four. Kershaw responded to the largess with six innings of one-run baseball. He will start Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.
The thought left him dazed and delighted. He clapped and hollered as his teammates used the Warren C. Giles Trophy, the physical distillation of the pennant, as a beer luge. When they chanted his name, Kershaw ducked beneath a downpour of champagne and beer. The deluge left his eyes red. The yelling made him hoarse. The emotion choked his voice.
“When you’re a little kid, you want to go play in the World Series,” Kershaw said. “That’s all you ever dream about. I never thought in a million years I’d get to say that. But I’m going to play in the World Series.”
The credit did not belong to Kershaw alone. Hernandez powered the offense on Thursday. Justin Turner and Chris Taylor split the NLCS MVP honors. Yasiel Puig acted in a one-man reality show. Kenley Jansen led a bullpen that did not permit a run in this series. Dave Roberts outfoxed managerial counterpart Joe Maddon.
And that was the point. The Dodgers acted as more than a one-man band, more than a gang of 24 being dragged forward by Kershaw. The ascendance of his supporting cast freed him to reach the game’s highest stage.
As October approached, the viability of Kershaw remained uncertain. He missed five weeks during the summer with a back injury, his second in as many years. He surrendered more homer in 2017 than ever before. He gave up four homers in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, highlighting his vulnerability in this new era of launch angles and leveraged swings.
For nearly 30 years, the Dodgers glittered like a bauble, the wattage of its star power outweighing its organizational strength. At one point in the 1990s, a Dodger won National League rookie of the year five seasons in a row. Yet from 1989 to 2012, the team captured only four division titles. They poisoned the well with Mike Piazza and Gary Sheffield. They traded Pedro Martinez too soon. They stuck with Manny Ramirez too long.
The Dodgers hoped Kershaw might be different. In the spring of 2008, less than two years after the team selected him sixth overall in the draft, Kershaw unleashed a curveball in a Cactus League game. The downward bite of the pitch astonished legendary announcer Vin Scully. “Public Enemy No. 1,” Scully called it, and the rest of the sport would soon buckle beneath its force.
Kershaw debuted in the majors at 20. He won his first National League Cy Young Award at 23. By the time he was 26, he owned three Cy Young Awards, a National League MVP and the honorific of “Best Pitcher In Baseball.” Only October eluded him.
“He's done everything he can individually on the baseball field,” Roberts said. “But the one thing that he's missing is a championship.”
The burden rested heavy on his shoulders. For years, Kershaw volunteered to pitch on short rest in October. The Dodgers could not afford for him to waver, and they departed for the winter when he did. In October, Atlas cannot shrug. “You get tired of the skeptics who have to point out all the negatives,” pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said.
As president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi reshaped the roster after taking over in 2015, they sought to build a team which complemented Kershaw rather than exploiting him. They mined the market for depth. It became a mantra, a guiding principle invoked so often it felt like a punchline.
The blueprint worked. The team executed a three-team swap in 2015 that netted Alex Wood. They acquired Rich Hill last summer and retained him as a free agent last winter. Racing away with the National League West this summer, they traded for Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish. The bolstered rotation allowed Kershaw to handle this postseason without added strain.
“I’ve always felt like part of the job for the front office of this organization was being the caretaker of the greatest pitcher of this generation,” Zaidi said. “I really believe that’s what he is. Sometimes we all forget he’s 29 years old, because he’s been around for so long, and carried such a burden for this franchise for so long. To be able to build a team around him that’s gotten to the World Series, and for him to get a chance to pitch on that stage, yeah, it feels incredible.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Kershaw parked himself behind a podium and fielded questions. He was preparing to pitch on Thursday, even if he preferred a victory in Game 4. After the Cubs survived to extend the series, Kershaw walked the halls outside the Dodgers clubhouse cooing his infant son Charley to sleep.
A day later, at 20 minutes past 6 p.m. local time, the Dodgers trotted off the field to finish batting practice. They walked past a lone figure on the bench, clad in a team-issued jacket, his cap covering his shaggy hair. No one spoke to Kershaw. As his teammates entered the clubhouse, he climbed the steps onto the field. Alone in right field, he loosened up.
Kershaw had not pitched in this ballpark since Game 6 of last year’s NLCS, when the Cubs taxed him for five runs. Unlike 2016, Kershaw took the mound on Thursday with a lead. Taylor opened the game with a nine-pitch walk against Cubs starter Jose Quintana, and Cody Bellinger raked an RBI double.
Kershaw looked formidable from the start. He snapped a pair of curveballs to fan Cubs outfielder Albert Almora, Jr. His fastball touched 96 mph. He ended the inning with groundouts from third baseman Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, the neutralized heart of the opposing lineup.
When Kershaw retook the mound in the second, his lead had doubled. Hernandez blitzed Quintana for a first-pitch, solo homer. An inning later, the Dodgers forced Quintana off the mound with the bases loaded. Maddon opened up his bullpen, a group of relievers as volatile as nitroglycerine in the sun, and watched Hector Rondon hang a slider to Hernandez, who pumped his fist as the baseball landed in the basket above the ivy.
The slam freed Kershaw to attack the Cubs. A seven-run lead expanded to nine in the fourth, after Logan Forsythe stroked a two-run double. Kershaw’s bid for a no-hitter ended when Bryant hit a solo homer in the fourth. He did not permit another Cub to reach second base.
In the dugout after the sixth, Roberts approached Kershaw and offered his hand. The night was over for the best pitcher in baseball, the man the Dodgers rode for so many years. He grinned and swept his hands through his hair. For the final three innings, he watched a team worthy of standing alongside him. When the last out whistled into Charlie Culberson’s glove at shortstop, Kershaw leaped the dugout railing to join the on-field party.
The players donned commemorative caps and shirts. They left the field and gathered in the center of the batting cages. They huddled around Kershaw. He called Hernandez into the center of the throng and asked for a speech. Hernandez obliged with his best.
“I don’t remember the last time the Dodgers were in the World Series,” Hernandez said. “I wasn’t even born yet. But guess what? We’re in the [expletive] World Series, and we got four [expletive] games to go!”
The group disappeared in a blizzard of sprayed booze. The players embarked toward coolers stocked with red bottles of Budweiser and bronze bottles of Beau Joie. Say this for Quintana: He lasted longer on Thursday than those coolers.
Bedlam reigned. Yasiel Puig wagged his tongue. Joc Pederson blasted Friedman with champagne. Honeycutt embraced vice president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos. “You deserve it,” Anthopoulos said. “You deserve it.”
Roberts burst into the crowd carrying the pennant. It soon became a luge, with bench coach Bob Geren coordinating the effort. Each member of the roster received a bath. Jansen bulled through a crowd of reporters and brought over Friedman for one. The group toasted Corey Seager, who spent the week in Los Angeles, resting his injured back.
“Pour one out for the homie!” Andre Ethier said.
Kershaw escaped the fray and found his family. He returned to the field with Charley and his daughter, Cali Ann. He posed for photos with his wife, Ellen. He held Charley in his arms as he chased Cali Ann around the mound.
Needed for a news conference, Kershaw carried his son back through the dugout, warning his wife about bumping her head on its low ceiling. They snaked through the passageways back toward this antiquated stadium’s concourse.
Waiting near the clubhouse was Tommy Lasorda, the last manager before Roberts to take the Dodgers to the World Series. Lasorda shook Kershaw’s hand.
“Outstanding!” Lasorda said. “Outstanding!”
The symbolism was obvious. Kershaw was born in 1988. The specter of that season hung over his career. It was time, he had decided, to let Dodgers fans talk about 2017.
At the podium, Kershaw beamed. He planned to work out on Friday to prepare for his next start. He joked he might retire if the Dodgers won a title. His gratitude to his teammates sounded endless.
“I’m really thankful,” Kershaw said, “I get to be on this team.”