As Dave Roberts left his dugout, a circle of teammates surrounded Clayton Kershaw, the group forming a phalanx around a man who did not require one. It was the seventh inning of the second game of the National League Championship Series against the Cubs, a contest these Dodgers could ill afford to lose. Kershaw cradled responsibility for the result like he cradled the baseball in his hand.
Kershaw did not say much as he surveyed the scene, with two outs, the tying run at first base and Chicago's October catalyst Javier Baez due up at the plate. He asked catcher Yasmani Grandal if Roberts had already signaled to the bullpen. Grandal shook his head. Kershaw steeled himself for the conversation with Roberts, the dance with his playoff history and a duel with an explosive hitter.
When Roberts took the field, he planned to take the baseball away from Kershaw. Kenley Jansen was ready for a seven-out save. Roberts expected resistance from his ace. He received certainty.
"We've got this guy," Kershaw said. "I can get this guy."
"Yeah?" Roberts replied. He stared in Kershaw's eyes.
The conviction swayed Roberts. The outcome caused Kershaw's heart to sink, if only for a moment, when Baez ripped a long fly ball into center field. In the aftermath of the 1-0 victory, the rest of the Dodgers defenders insisted they knew the ball would land in Joc Pederson's glove. Only Kershaw admitted to fear.
"I thought it was out, for sure," Kershaw said.
He was wrong. Rather than conducting a reprise of previous postseason heartache, Kershaw authored another chapter in his remarkable October. Pitching for the third time in six days, he evened this series with seven scoreless innings. Chicago managed only two singles against him. No Cub advanced beyond second base.
Kershaw handed the game over to closer Kenley Jansen in the eighth inning. Jansen notched a six-out save, protecting a lead created by an Adrian Gonzalez homer in the second inning. The Dodgers revived themselves after Joe Blanton allowed a back-breaking grand slam in Game 1. The revival started with Kershaw.
He did not give up a hit until the fifth inning. He did not reach a three-ball count until the sixth. And he survived the seventh inning, the setting for so much of his October heartbreak, overcoming a leadoff walk, an error by catcher Yasmani Grandal and Baez's rocket.
"Give him credit, man," Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said.
Jansen referred to Kershaw as an inspiration. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt called the effort "gargantuan." Roberts insisted these last two weeks have shredded any lingering questions about Kershaw's ability to pitch in the playoffs.
"He's the best pitcher on the planet," Roberts said. "I'll take him any day."
Kershaw is this team's firewall. His left arm stanches their wounds. He has been a starter this October and he has been a closer. The Dodgers have won all four games in which Kershaw has pitched this postseason. They've lost all the others. The team hopes to buck that trend in Game 3 on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.
"Doc!" third baseman Justin Turner cracked when informed of this reality. "We need Clayton to throw on Tuesday!"
That is unlikely. Kershaw logged 110 pitches in Game 4 last Tuesday against Washington. He needed seven pitches to collect the save in the first-round clincher on Thursday. He threw 84 more on Sunday.
A heavy October workload for Kershaw is nothing new. But there is still the specter of concern about his back. Roberts repeated his contention that the team does not harbor fears about the lingering effect of his herniated disk. "There's a lot of bullets left in that arm for this season," Roberts said.
The Dodgers handed Kershaw a lead in the second inning, when Gonzalez took Chicago starter Kyle Hendricks deep. The offense provided nothing else. Kershaw needed to make it last.
His opponents were curious about his condition. Hours before the first pitch, Maddon speculated Kershaw might not possess his usual stamina. "I anticipate good from him," Maddon said. "But how sustainable is it?"
Kershaw showed no evidence of fatigue at the start. He ratcheted his fastball up to 95 mph. He pounded the heater inside, handcuffing his hosts and inducing weak contact. He struck out six.
Kershaw recorded a hit before any Cub did. He slapped a single in the fifth. His teammates left his stranded at second base, one of eight men left aboard by the Dodgers on the night, so he returned to his dugout still protecting a one-run lead.
Maddon looked like an oracle in the bottom of the fifth inning. After a pair of hard outs, Baez provided his team's first hit with a well-struck single. Kershaw gave up another single to the next batter, catcher Willson Contreras. The two hits animated the sleepy crowd. But the fans went back to sitting on their hands when Kershaw got outfielder Jason Heyward to pop up for the third out.
"He was locked in," Grandal said. "He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He knew exactly what the plan was."
The seventh inning was the proving ground. Kershaw tossed a pair of balls to first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Jansen started to warm up. Rizzo walked on four pitches. Up came outfielder Ben Zobrist, who had slashed a pair of line-drive outs in his first two at-bats. Only now he sent a pop-up soaring behind the plate.
Grandal got turned around as he searched for the baseball. He settled underneath it in time, but became confused when Gonzalez drifted into his line of vision. His glove rose too late. The baseball hit the ground, and Kershaw doubled over in shock.
It was a reminder of all the misfortune Kershaw has experienced in the seventh inning of postseason's past: The hanging curveball to Matt Adams in 2014, David Wright's go-ahead single off Pedro Baez in 2015, the 2016 bullpen's meltdown only five days prior.
Except Kershaw would not crumble. Two pitches later, he buzzed an 0-2 fastball down the middle. Zobrist just stared at strike three — "thankfully," Kershaw said. Kershaw got shortstop Addison Russell to fly out. Then Roberts came to the mound, and went back without making a move.
"I kind of talked my way into it," Kershaw said.
Kershaw hoped to catch the corner of the zone with a 94-mph fastball. Instead he caught Baez's bat. The crowd erupted upon contact. Pederson retreated to the track, where the ball nestled into his glove.
"Fortunately, he hit it at somebody," Kershaw said. "So it was good."
Hunched at the waist, Kershaw raised himself up and exhaled. He managed a grin as he left the diamond. In the dugout, Roberts cackled with madcap glee, as if these last few weeks had driven him bonkers. Perhaps they have. But they have also ended the discussion about Kershaw in October.
"I know he's tired of hearing it," Roberts said. "It's unfair. For us, we don't care. What this guy's done is dig deep. I can't say enough about Clayton Kershaw."
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