The demons didn't wait long, did they?
Clayton Kershaw had barely taken the Nationals Park mound Friday night in the Dodgers' postseason opener when he was engulfed in memories of past October failures.
They quickly slithered through a slider that couldn't always hit its spots, nastily wrapped around a curveball that sometimes fell flat, and hissed repeatedly with the sort of evils that have haunted his championship hopes.
He gave up loud line drives. His second baseman dropped a grounder. His catcher kept running to the mound in confusion. A chant from thousands of red-clad fans swelled up in his ears, a derisive jeer bestowed on only the most vunerable.
"Kerr-shaw, Kerr-shaw, Kerr-shaw.''
For five innings, Clayton Kershaw wasn't just pitching against the Nationals, he was fighting his history, and, admit it Dodger fans, some of you were expecting the worst.
"Here we go again?"
No, this time, it was simply, "Here we go."
This time, Kershaw survived. He was scarred, he was exhausted, but he fought back, and he survived, allowing three runs in five innings but leaving with a lead the Dodgers never lost.
Final score: Dodgers 4, Nationals 3, Demons 0.
"Close as you can bend without breaking," Kershaw said afterward with a grin.
It was closer than that. He constantly had runners surrounding him, guys standing in scoring position in four of his five innings. He frequently needed to save himself with one pitch, as three times he had to conjure up two outs to keep those runners from scoring.
He threw 101 pitches, the most he has thrown since missing more than two months this summer with a herniated disk in his back. And he needed to figure out his final batter to walk off with that lead.
He recorded that out, striking out Danny Espinosa with runners on first and third, and walked off sweaty but smiling. He allowed eight hits in those five innings and actually walked a batter — for shame! — but the only thing that mattered was the giant letter by his name in the box score.
It was only his third "W" in nine postseason decisions. That record is not going to change overnight. But Kershaw knows a World Series title, no matter how they can get it, will make those numbers disappear.
"Winning in postseason, you can throw the stats out the window," he said. "Right now I can smile and kind of exhale a little bit."
The Dodgers are shaking their heads and taking deep breaths with him. Nobody is quite sure how much of Kershaw's physical game has returned in the wake of his back problems. This first real pressure test was anything but definitive. Will he have to fight like this through every October start? How will he recover from the most pitches he's thrown since June? How might he look next week on three days' rest?
But his teammates are thrilled because it's clear his will is stronger than ever, his past postseasons have not been deadly poisonous, and, with this bullpen, maybe five tough innings from Kershaw will be enough.
"He grinded through, gave as much as he could, that's all we could ask for," said Corey Seager, whose first-inning home run off Nationals ace Max Scherzer gave the Dodgers a lead they never relinquished. "He didn't have his best stuff but we'll be all right."
Yasmani Grandal, the catcher whose relentless trips to the mound filled the stadium with boos, said Kershaw's night felt like a cheer.
"The good thing about this outing is, he kept us in the game," Grandal said. "He battled. He battled no matter what the situation he had. He got the big outs. He got the outs he needed."
Truly, he battled. Chase Utley dropped a grounder in the second inning, his two-out error costing Kershaw eight more pitches. Kershaw gave up a leadoff double in the fourth inning to third-string catcher Pedro Severino. He engaged in an eight-pitch battle with Scherzer. After the first inning, he recorded consecutive non-scoring outs just once.
All this, and Grandal was continually visiting the mound in a struggle to connect on constantly changing signs, three times in the third inning alone. For anyone who still thought that A.J. Ellis' connection with Kershaw was a myth, Friday made it real. When the Dodgers traded Ellis to the Philadelphia Phillies for Carlos Ruiz in August, they traded away their best pitcher's baseball soul mate, and only now can everyone see exactly what that means.
"With so many guys on second base, we wanted to make sure we were changing it up often," Kershaw said about the signs. "You always want to be in a rhythm, but making sure you're on the same page is more important, and knowing the signs is even more important."
Added Grandal: "You don't want to cross anybody up. It's better to be 100% right than 90% right, especially for me."
Typical of his October experience, Kershaw's day began in mild controversy, with Nationals Manager Dusty Baker taking a shot at him during the pregame news conference. Baker claimed Kershaw balks when holding runners on base and urged the umpires to call him on it. Kershaw never heard the comments, the Dodgers avoided telling him, and, no, he didn't balk once.
For once, Kershaw's October day ended in sweetness, as he met Dodgers great Sandy Koufax in the clubhouse afterward. The two briefly embraced as Koufax appeared to offer words of encouragement, and why not?
It was only five innings, but by the time it ended in one big win, there wasn't a demon in sight.