Column: Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw is tasked with gaining back World Series’ momentum in Game 5

The Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw pitches against the Rays in Game 1 of the World Series on Oct. 20, 2020.
Clayton Kershaw earned the win in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday, and the Dodgers will be counting on him in Game 5 on Sunday night.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Sunday offered the promise of a reprieve from the three-plus decades of continuous failure.

If Kenley Jansen could have closed out Game 4, another victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5 could have secured the Dodgers their first World Series championship in 32 years.

Their scheduled starter was Clayton Kershaw.


How perfect was that?

Too perfect to be true, it turned out.

Jansen gave up a single to Brett Phillips, center fielder Chris Taylor made a fielding error, Will Smith missed Max Muncy’s throw to the plate and the Dodgers were suddenly on the wrong end of an 8-7 decision.

The Dodgers thought reliever Kenley Jansen was back on track, but he wobbled and Tampa Bay pounced for a wild win in Game 4 of the World Series.

The World Series is now level at two games apiece.

As the player who most personified the team’s succession of postseason failures, Kershaw deserved to start the potential clincher.

His assignment on Sunday has become less glamorous but considerably more important, as Kershaw will be looking to regain control of the series for the Dodgers.

Which is equally appropriate.

When Kershaw was at the height of his powers, he acknowledged he was uncertain whether the value of pitchers was accurately reflected by their win-loss records. He wasn’t about earned-run average or strikeouts, either.

The statistical category he cherished most was innings pitched.

Kenley Jansen and the Dodgers were one out away from taking a commanding lead in the World Series. Instead, the unfathomable has happened.

Kershaw wasn’t as concerned about being the center of attention than he was about being someone his team could count on.

His innings count was a measure of that.

The Dodgers will be depending on him again Sunday.

Kershaw has experienced sufficient heartbreak in October to know he couldn’t count on anything. Speaking before Game 4, he noted the Dodgers had to win their third game of this World Series before they could win their fourth.

“When you’ve been working so long and so hard for one goal and it’s getting closer and closer with each win, it’s hard not to think about the end game and what that might be like,” Kershaw said. “But you just have to [stay in the moment]. It’s too hard to think in the future when you have a great team that you’re playing against.”

The Dodgers made a costly error on Brett Phillips’ two-out single in the ninth inning, allowing two runs to score for an 8-7 Rays win that ties the World Series at two games each.

Kershaw will be taking on a team he dominated in a Game 1 landslide when he limited the Rays to a solitary run over six innings.

His slider was the key that night against the all-or-nothing Rays lineup, accounting for 35 of his 78 pitches and producing 11 swings and misses.

But in this modern version of baseball, the second time facing an opponent is never as easy as the first. The Rays now have an idea
of how he will attack them. They know how his slider breaks and how his curveball tumbles.

“Might have to change a few things up,” Kershaw said. “But for the most part just continue to pitch the way that you pitch.”

Manager Dave Roberts added: “That’s the cat-and-mouse … who is going to change, who is going to keep doing what they did? That’s the fun part, the game inside the game. That will be good to see.”

Key plays from the Dodgers’ 8-7 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 4 of the World Series on Saturday night.

Three of the last four times Kershaw has pitched multiple times in the same series, it hasn’t gone well. There were the two home runs he gave up in relief against the Washington Nationals in Game 5 of last year’s NLDS. There was his seven-inning, four-run start in Game 5 of the 2018 World Series, when the Boston Red Sox clinched the title at Dodger Stadium.

And there was the infamous fifth game of the 2017 World Series, when Kershaw blew leads of four and three runs against an Astros team that was later found to have been stealing signs at home games during that season.

The enduring images of Kershaw in the postseason are of him bent over with his hands on his knees.

This game won’t necessarily provide him with an opportunity to change that. What will be remembered are the celebrations or the blank stares after the final out of this World Series is recorded, depending on which side the Dodgers end up.

What Kershaw does on Sunday will shape those images. He might not ever enjoy his Orel Hershiser moment, in which a teammate lifts him in the air in the moment of triumph, but that doesn’t make this any less important.

Kershaw knows that. The Dodgers know that.

Over his 13 seasons with the Dodgers, his achievements are almost unmatched in modern baseball.

Photos from Game 4 of the World Series between the Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

A most valuable player award. Three Cy Young Awards. National League leader in every major pitching category.

His regular-season records are a result of his consistency.

Seizing a moment in October has proved more difficult, however.

Kershaw will not only have to do that, he will have to do that against the backdrop of a devastating Game 4 loss. He will not only have to pitch well, he will have to do so while being his team’s emotional anchor.

What appeared to be a lifelong road to a World Series-clinching victory instead revealed itself on Saturday night as a journey to this game, one considerably more dangerous and consequential.