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Dodgers

Dodgers down Nationals, 4-3, in Game 5 to advance to NLCS against Cubs

The Dodgers celebrate a 4-3 victory over the Nationals in Game 5 of the NLDS. The Dodgers will face the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS.

Clayton Kershaw could barely lift his feet. His sandals splattered through puddles of champagne and beer, kicking away corks and crushed bottles of Budweiser. He slipped away from the chaos inside his clubhouse, a scene of revelry after a 4-3 victory to send the Dodgers to the National League Championship Series, and found a quiet space inside a cafeteria.

Kershaw grabbed a trash can and stared into its contents. A team official came by and hugged him. “Unreal,” the man said. Kershaw sputtered a reply and shook his head. He was smiling but dazed. Nothing came easy for the Dodgers on this night, not even the words for Kershaw to describe his emotion.

“I feel . . . I feel . . . good,” Kershaw said as he wandered back into the madness. The Dodgers did not reach this moment solely because of him. But he stood a few steps off the mound, arms raised to the sky, at 12:41 a.m. EDT on Friday as his club held off the Nationals in Game 5 of the National League division series. He recorded the final two outs to deliver his team to a date with the Cubs on Saturday at Wrigley Field.

Kershaw arrived on the scene at the height of tension, with the potential winning run already on base. The ballpark rattled around him, trying to exorcise a franchise’s demons of playoff failure. Kershaw wanted to exorcise his own. His manager did not ask him to pitch. Kershaw insisted upon it, despite performing on one day of rest, just two nights of sleep removed from a 110-pitch effort on Tuesday, just three months removed from the herniated disk that sidelined him for much of the summer.

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Kershaw could not finish Game 4. But he would finish Game 5.

At the plate stood Daniel Murphy, one of the finest hitters in the sport, a man who has tormented the Dodgers these last two Octobers. Kershaw deposed of him with ease. He induced a pop-up on a 94-mph fastball. Five pitches later, he snapped a curveball past the helpless swing of infielder Wilmer Difo and waited for his teammates.

The group engulfed him. Kershaw opened his arms to backup catcher Carlos Ruiz, who gave the team the lead in the seventh inning with an RBI single. Joining the pile was Kenley Jansen, who expended himself with 51 pitches to drag this game from the seventh inning into the ninth. Along came Manager Dave Roberts, the man who masterminded the entire night.

“His way of thinking was, ‘We’re going to do everything we need to do to win today,’” first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. “Today was the ultimate example.”

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Roberts ran the game like a clinic, aware of the stakes, unwilling to bend to the sport’s orthodoxy. He used set-up man Joe Blanton in the third inning. He called upon his closer in the seventh. He trusted his ace in the ninth.

The result was a game like few others in recent memory. It lasted 4 hours 32 minutes. The seventh inning took 66 minutes alone. After securing a stirring victory in Game 4, the Dodgers managed to top themselves in the clincher.

“They’re going to be talking about this game for years,” Dodgers President Stan Kasten said.

The entire evening felt like prologue until the seventh inning. The Nationals held a one-run lead, with Manager Dusty Baker willing to trust Max Scherzer on a third pass through the Dodgers’ lineup. The trust proved ill-fated. Joc Pederson led off the inning with a solo home run. Baker opened up his bullpen, and the Dodgers started to feast.

Roberts utilized all three of his catchers in the inning. Starter Yasmani Grandal walked. Roberts sent Austin Barnes to pinch-run for Grandal. Then he sent Ruiz to the plate. Ruiz smacked an RBI single off reliever Sammy Solis to score Barnes. Justin Turner padded the lead with a two-run triple.

The advantage felt comfortable. And then, suddenly, it was not.

Grant Dayton, a rookie reliever, served up a two-run homer to former Dodger Chris Heisey in the bottom of the seventh. Roberts sprung into action. After Dayton walked a batter, Roberts went to Jansen. Inside the dugout, Kershaw started to do the math. Then he found Roberts.

“I wanted to be out there tonight,” Kershaw said.

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Earlier in the afternoon, Kershaw took the field to play catch. He joked to a few reporters that he felt “fantastic.” He was not planning on throwing his usual bullpen session until Friday, so he just wanted to keep his arm loose. As he finished his session, he caught the eye of Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez.

“Great game,” Gonzalez told him.

“Thanks, man,” Kershaw said.

“That was a heck of a game,” Gonzalez said.

There was little reason to expect Kershaw would appear on Thursday. Before the game, Roberts insisted that Kershaw would “absolutely not” pitch. His back was too vulnerable. His value as an asset was too high.

To get through Game 5, the Dodgers required creativity. They were working under constrained circumstances. Unlike the Nationals, the Dodgers did not have a starter capable of going deep. They asked Rich Hill to pitch on short rest for the first time in a decade. The team required a plan to handle the game after Hill’s exit.

The Dodgers finalized their strategy on Wednesday. The team sifted through the matchups, stitching together different pitchers for different scenarios. They called it “The Road Map to 27 Outs.” During the conversations, Kershaw’s name “never” came up, General Manager Farhan Zaidi said. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said he could not imagine Kershaw appearing “in my wildest dreams.”

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The calculus changed as Jansen labored. He gave up a single to outfielder Jayson Werth and intentionally walked Murphy. Jansen struck out third baseman Anthony Rendon, but his pitch count was rising. Kershaw told Roberts he would warm up and see how he felt. Roberts checked with the training staff.

“I just felt that Clayton was going to go out there and give us everything he had,” Roberts said.

Jansen survived the eighth. At 12:12 a.m., as a game, a series and a season hung in the balance, Kershaw climbed up the steps of the Dodgers dugout and walked toward his bullpen. Murphy was due up fourth in the inning. He was Kershaw’s responsibility.

Jansen approached the end of his rope in the ninth. He walked outfielder Bryce Harper. He walked Werth. He had already thrown 20 more pitches than he had in another other game this season. He could go no further.

“That’s as gutsy a performance as I can remember seeing,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said.

There was one more feat left for the team to witness. Kershaw needed only seven pitches to find those last two outs. It was his first save in a professional game since the Gulf Coast League in 2006. His catcher that day was a kid from Curacao named Kenley Jansen.

In the chaos that followed, Kershaw could not hide his exhaustion. This series has sapped his energy on so many occasions, leaving him mentally and physically spent.

As he walked from his clubhouse toward a news conference, he could not hide a smile. 

“We’ve got to win eight more of these?” Kershaw said.

For Kershaw and the Dodgers, October has just begun.

andy.mccullough@latimes.com

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes


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