Roberts grew up in San Diego watching Riley’s Lakers. Now he spent about 20 minutes soliciting advice from the sideline maestro of Showtime.
“A lot of it is continuing to do what you’ve done and counting on that,” Roberts said after a workout at Nationals Park on Thursday, a day before Game 1 of the Dodgers’ National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals. “But also, you spend a lot of time putting in time with the guys who aren’t the superstars. But he encouraged me to really give that same amount of time to the superstars.”
For Riley, that meant devoting time to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. For Roberts, it translated into more attention for Clayton Kershaw and Corey Seager, the two most talented players on the roster and the two most critical to advancement beyond the first round of the playoffs.
Seager has the entirety of the series to display his talent. But Kershaw will take center stage on Friday night as he duels with Nationals ace Max Scherzer.
Kershaw considers Scherzer the favorite to win the National League Cy Young award, a title Kershaw appeared on track to win before suffering a herniated disk. Scherzer considers Kershaw the sport’s finest pitcher.
“It’s what you play this game for,” Scherzer said of the Game 1 matchup. “You don’t measure yourself against the worst. You measure yourself against the best. And I think this is the best possible opponent I could face, with the Dodgers and Kershaw throwing.”
When the Dodgers visited Washington in July, Kershaw did not make the trip. He was back in Los Angeles, days removed from a setback in his rehabilitation. At the time, Roberts worried that Kershaw might need season-ending surgery. He held onto that worry for months, even as Kershaw resumed his throwing program and started pitching in simulated games.
Kershaw returned to action Sept. 9 at Miami. He lasted only three innings. But five days later, he strung together five scoreless innings against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium and his back held firm despite a series of rain delays that interrupted his rhythm.
“I think that was a big exhale for all of us,” Roberts said.
Kershaw made five starts in the last month of the season. In his first two, he admitted, he felt nervous about his condition because “in the back of your head, you’re like, ‘Am I going to hurt it again?’” That anxiety faded during his final three starts, when he gave up four runs, two unearned, in 20 innings.
The playoffs have not been kind to Kershaw. Despite his success against the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, his earned-run average in his last eight outings is a pedestrian 4.20, a product of several dalliances with the St. Louis Cardinals.
“I don’t know how many starts I’ve had in the regular season, but hundreds, and you don’t have that opportunity in the postseason,” Kershaw said. “So you’ve got to make it count. And the bad ones stand out more, for sure.”
Kershaw appeared at ease Thursday. He whistled along with Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up,” which played through the ballpark’s speaker system as his team took the field. He smiled when climbing on the back of the cage to watch his team take batting practice. He insisted he had never felt more relaxed before a playoff outing.
“In the past I've definitely felt that pressure more,” Kershaw said. “But this year's been a little bit different for me, just as far as having to watch on the sidelines for two months, understanding how good our team it. It’s really kind of hit home for me as I've come back that I can definitely be a part of this and definitely help and definitely be a factor in winning. But I don't have to be the factor.
“We have so many guys that can do so many different things that it’s not all on me.”
That knowledge gave Roberts comfort. The Dodgers enter the series with only one obvious weakness — an inability to hit left-handed pitchers — but the Nationals appear wary to exploit it. Nationals Manager Dusty Baker declined to say whether enigmatic left-hander Gio Gonzalez would start in Game 2.
So Roberts was brimming with confidence. He planned to call Riley again on Friday for a last bit of advice. And then he will try to guide the Dodgers to their first World Series championship since 1988.
“The nerves haven’t hit yet,” Roberts said. “I just feel like we’re just in such a good place. Whatever happens, happens. But I just know that no one is going to be more prepared than us.”