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Clayton Kershaw can’t save Dodgers this time

Clayton Kershaw can’t save Dodgers this time
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw walks back to the mound as Cubs shortstop Addison Russell scores a run in the second inning of Game 6. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The chorus rained down from the rafters, buoyed by the die-hards in the bleachers, filtered through the brisk Windy City night and entered the ears of Clayton Kershaw inside the bowels of Wrigley Field

Go Cubs Go!

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Go Cubs Go!

A 42,000-person party raged above Kershaw, the sound of a city and a franchise shaking off 71 years in the October darkness. The song provided a cruel accompaniment as Kershaw searched for the words to describe the Dodgers’ season-ending 5-0 loss Saturday night in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series

"It's tough to swallow tonight, obviously," Kershaw said. "I'd much rather be in this situation and fail than not be in this situation at all. As much as this does hurt, as much as I would have liked to have won tonight, I'm really thankful that I've gotten to be on a team that's been in the postseason four years in a row."

All four have ended in defeat, all four have ended in disappointment. These Dodgers hoped to be different. These Dodgers overcame a historic slate of injuries during the regular season. These Dodgers outlasted a dangerous Washington club in the division series. These Dodgers dreamed of ending a World Series drought that has now reached its 28th year.

Instead, these Dodgers served as fodder for the Cubs' reaching the Fall Classic for the first time since 1945. Ahead two games to one after winning Tuesday in Los Angeles, the Dodgers collapsed across the next three, coming unwound with a spate of fielding errors, baserunning gaffes and imprecise pitching.

The pattern held in Game 6. The Cubs mauled Kershaw for five runs in five innings. The lineup never materialized against Chicago starter Kyle Hendricks. The group picked an inopportune time to play their sloppiest brand of baseball, the sort of performance that leaves “a little bit of a sour taste,” Manager Dave Roberts said.

"The last three games, we didn't play great baseball," first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. "We made errors, mental errors, physical errors. They took advantage, and they beat us."

The group entered the night capable of hope. Though they trailed in the series, the team had Kershaw starting on Saturday and Rich Hill scheduled for Game 7. The duo had strung together 13 scoreless innings earlier in the series. To get to Hill, of course, the team needed Kershaw to haul them one game further.

The Dodgers surged into control of the National League West while Kershaw mended a herniated disk for 10 weeks. But in October, the team reverted to its former state. They could go only as far as Kershaw could take him. Before Saturday, the team was unbeaten in playoff games in which Kershaw appeared and 1-5 in the rest.

“I can’t possibly say enough about Clayton,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “Most guys would not have come back at all from what he suffered. But it wasn’t even a question in his mind.”

Only nine days earlier, Kershaw had stood in the center of Nationals Park with his arms raised aloft. He’d secured the final two outs of a first-round clincher, and his teammates engulfed him. His face wore a mixture of exhaustion and joy. The postseason had only just begun, and Kershaw would soon be reminded how fickle it can be.

On the third pitch of Game 6, Kershaw pumped a slider at the belt. Leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler flicked a line drive down the right-field line. The ball kissed the inside of the paint and bounced over the bricks for a ground-rule double. Giving chase, right fielder Josh Reddick shook his head. 

Three pitches later, third baseman Kris Bryant reached across the plate, dug out a low fastball and sent an RBI single into right. The crowd was already alive, braying Kershaw’s name, elongating the syllables like playground bullies. Now the ballpark shook. It would only get worse for him. 

After five fastballs to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, Kershaw tried a slider. Rizzo hit a drive into the gap between left fielder Andrew Toles and center fielder Joc Pederson. Toles settled underneath it. He raised his glove. At the last moment, he became distracted by the onrushing Pederson, and lost the baseball in the lights.

"I saw Joc coming in my peripheral," Toles said. "And when I looked back, it was in the lights."

The ball hit Toles’ glove and then hit the ground. Stunned by the error, Kershaw stuck out his tongue, but managed to shield his dismay. Both runners advanced into scoring position, and Bryant scored on a subsequent sacrifice fly by left fielder Ben Zobrist

The torment of the inning lasted 30 pitches. Along the way, Kershaw realized he could not command his curveball, could not deliver it for a strike. He declined to cite his health as a source of his woes.

"It's tough to talk about and not sound like you're making excuses, or whatever," said Kershaw, who missed 10 weeks this summer with a herniated disk. "I felt good tonight, 100%. I just got beat."

As the Cubs harassed Kershaw, his teammates stepped on their own toes, incapable of avoiding unforced mistakes. The top of the second ended when Reddick was picked off first base. Hendricks did not allow another baserunner until the eighth inning. The inattention to detail was "very uncharacteristic of our guys," Roberts said.

"When you look back at these last three games, to not play our best baseball, it leaves a sour taste," Roberts said.

For Kershaw, the agony was not limited to the first inning. Shortstop Addison Russell greeted him in the second by stinging a leadoff double into the ivy along the left-field wall. With two outs, Kershaw picked up two strikes on Fowler. But he left an 0-2 fastball over the middle, and Fowler pulled it into left for an RBI single.

As Hendricks twirled a gem, Kershaw found his evening only worsening. In the bottom of the fourth, he tried to spin a slider aimed at the back foot of catcher Willson Contreras. His aim was not true. The pitch was elevated over the plate. Contreras ripped it over the left-field fence for a solo home run.

The Cubs won 103 games during the regular season. They would not wither at the site of Kershaw's fastball, the only pitch he could rely upon Saturday. He dropped into a sidearm delivery during the fifth, trying to fool Rizzo with a trick he learned from teammate Rich Hill. Rizzo redirected the fastball into the bleachers, another solo homer.

Down five, Kershaw left the game on his own accord. He struck out Zobrist for the third out and shuffled toward his dugout. He kept his head down as the ballpark vibrated with noise. He slipped out of sight, his season finished, his legacy still undetermined.

The crowd roared in the bottom of the fifth when the Dodgers sent Andre Ethier to pinch hit for Kershaw. The fans counted down the outs, wary of black cats or fans wearing headphones, until it was over.

The Cubs moshed on the diamond, recreating the scene the Dodgers engaged in less than two weeks ago. On the field, the players climbed a platform and held aloft the pennant. On the speaker system, Kool and the Gang encouraged the group to celebrate good times. Inside the tunnel leading to the Dodgers' clubhouse, the only sound was the lonely thunk of a team official loading bats into a trunk, packing up for the winter.

"This day is never fun," Kershaw said. "The ending of the season."

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes

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