Nick Punto sat at his locker, surrounded by media fresh after the Dodgers’ 6-4 victory over the Cardinals in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, but his mind raced ahead.
The Dodgers will face their second consecutive elimination game Friday, this time in St. Louis with ace Clayton Kershaw set to start for the Dodgers.
Kershaw, who at age 25 has already won one Cy Young Award and is the presumptive National League winner again this season, will be making the ninth postseason appearance of his career.
There have been many memorable Kershaw moments over the past six years, but Punto flatly said what everyone was thinking:
“The biggest start of his career. I’m looking forward to watching it.”
In the regular season, Kershaw went 16-9 with a 1.89 ERA and 0.92 WHIP, both the lowest marks in the major leagues. He led the NL with 232 strikeouts.
And he now pitches in the most important game of his life. Win or the Dodgers’ season ends.
If the Dodgers had their choice of any pitcher in baseball to start Friday, the left-hander is the one they would want to send out. After Game 5, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez could not let a postgame question finish that began by calling Kershaw one of the best pitchers in baseball.
“Not one of the best,” he interrupted. “The best.”
But “the best” lost Game 2. Lost despite allowing only two hits in his six innings. Lost despite allowing only one unearned run.
Lost because the Dodgers could not scrape up a single run against rookie right-hander Michael Wacha, who will oppose them again Friday.
The means to Kershaw’s demise was not unfamiliar. In his nine regular-season losses this season, the Dodgers scored him a total of 14 runs. In 16 of his 33 starts, the Dodgers scored two or fewer. Wrote the Orange County Register’s Bill Plunkett: “The only hitters who seem capable of frustrating Kershaw at times are the ones on his own team.”
The Dodgers hit four home runs in their victory Wednesday and are hopeful some of that newfound power will carry over to St. Louis.
“We have the best pitcher in baseball going,” said reliever Brian Wilson. “I’m feeling very strong about [this] game. But at the same time you can’t rely on something like that. You still have to play your baseball game, still have to score runs to win, still have to play impeccable defense. And that’s what this postseason is about.”
Players can elevate their standing with excellence in the postseason. It’s where legends are made. And now where Kershaw is, in the biggest start of his career.