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Dodgers turn once again to Clayton Kershaw, this time fully rested but with no margin for error

Dodgers turn once again to Clayton Kershaw, this time fully rested but with no margin for error
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw looks on from the dugout during Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs on Thursday at Dodger Stadium. (Jeff Gross / Getty Images)

The equipment bag sat in front of Clayton Kershaw's locker, half-zipped but ready to be tossed aboard a charter flight to Chicago. As the Dodgers prepared Friday to leave home for Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against the Cubs, the players understood the likelihood of another game at Dodger Stadium in 2016 depended on Kershaw's left arm.

The arithmetic for the Dodgers heading into the weekend is tantalizing and disheartening. The team is two victories away from its first World Series berth since 1988. It is also one loss away from the off-season.

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Such is the situation after the Dodgers bungled Games 4 and 5 at home to fall behind in the series, three games to two.

So the Dodgers return to Wrigley Field, where they exited in triumphant fashion last Sunday. Once more, they will turn to Kershaw. For the second series in a row, the team must win an elimination game with their ace on the mound.

"I'm sure he'll be the first one to tell you that he wants it," reliever Joe Blanton said. "He wants it more than anybody. We want him to have it. He's going to go out and do what he does best, whatever that may be, whatever the result is. Everybody is going to give 100%."

Kershaw threw seven scoreless innings in Game 2. Two days later, Rich Hill spun six scoreless innings in Game 3. The Dodgers strung together a pair of shutouts to grab control of this series. The stranglehold did not last, but it does give the club a reason for optimism.

If Kershaw can hold off the Cubs on Saturday, Hill will be ready to start in Game 7 on Sunday, when Chicago probably would be roiled by discussion of collapses past, as the franchise seeks to shake off a 108-year championship drought.

"He and Rich are who you want at the end of the series," Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager said. "We're looking forward to the battle on Saturday."

The Dodgers elected to hold Kershaw out of Game 5 on Thursday, rather than use him on short rest yet again. Kershaw informed the team he was willing to pitch whenever he was asked, he said. But the team does not want to grind him into dust, given the workload he has already shouldered this October.

Kershaw planned to work out at Dodger Stadium on Friday before the team's flight to Chicago. The Dodgers did not hold a workout at Wrigley Field, choosing to rest rather than take batting practice after 8 p.m. Kershaw did not mind the added time off, as he will be pitching on five days of rest, one more than usual.

"It's kind of nice," he said. "Haven't had that in a while, so it's good. I should be ready to go."

Kershaw tends to pitch better on regular rest. In his career, he has a 2.31 earned-run average in the regular season on four days' rest. His ERA rises to 2.61 when he receives five days off.

But these are unique circumstances. His output has been extraordinary these past two weeks. He started Game 1 of the division series against Washington on Oct. 7, and pitched on three days of rest in Game 4. He helped the team avoid elimination, then two days later he collected the final two outs of the clincher at Nationals Park in Game 5.

Three days after that, he took the ball at Wrigley Field. He emerged victorious, allowing just two hits in a 1-0 win, though his effectiveness appeared to wane during the sixth and seventh innings. Kershaw acknowledged that the Cubs might feel more comfortable seeing him pitch again so soon.

"There's no secrets, anyway, in the game right now," he said. "There's so much information. They know every pitch that I throw and every count and every situation. So it's just a matter of not really focusing on that and just trying to compete every single pitch and execute every single pitch. You maybe have a little less margin for error facing them the second time, but just be better, I guess."

At a news conference Thursday, a few hours before the Dodgers dropped Game 5, a reporter asked Kershaw about his "excitement" about the challenge that awaits him.

"I don't know if excitement's the right word," he replied.

What is the right word?

"I don't know; that's such a deep thought," Kershaw said with a wry smile. "I don't know if I have a word for it. But I think you do everything you can to try and keep it just like another start at the beginning.

"Then, obviously, the magnitude and the situation of the game kind of raises everybody's adrenaline and things like that. But I'm trying to keep it the same right now."

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes

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