CHICAGO — Seized by dread, Clayton Kershaw turned toward centerfield, where Javier Baez had sent a seventh-inning drive soaring toward the ivy.
Moments earlier, the Dodgers’ ace had talked his manager into leaving him in the game. He had spent much of Sunday night depriving the Cubs of oxygen, and he was convinced he could do it one more time. Now he was the one who could not breathe.
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“I thought it was out for sure,” Kershaw said. It was his only miscalculation in a 1-0 masterpiece.
Joc Pederson chased down Baez’s drive a few steps short of the bricks, raising his index finger to confirm that the crisis had been averted. It set the tone for a victory the Dodgers needed to even this best-of-seven NLCS at one game apiece.
“We all held our breath a little bit,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who trusted his gut when he visited the mound, ready to pull Kershaw for closer Kenley Jansen with Baez at bat.
Adrian Gonzalez hit a solo homer in the second inning off Kyle Hendricks for the game’s only run. And eventually, Jansen did get in. He retired the final six batters, another gutty effort after pitching 2 1⁄3 shutout innings in NLDS Game 5, to complete the Dodgers’ two-hitter.
But it was Kershaw who asserted control, tossing seven innings to obliterate any doubts about his postseason makeup. He entered the night with a 4.79 postseason ERA, though none of that seemed to matter as he took a perfect game into the fifth.
The Cubs, hoping for their first pennant since 1945 and their first championship since 1908, had no answers.
“We didn’t strike the ball like we normally strike it — hard,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
The Dodgers leaned hard on Kershaw to survive the Division Series against the Nationals. His previous start, a Dodgers victory in Game 4, came on three days’ rest. Two days later, he appeared in relief to close out Game 5, seemingly indifferent to the fact that he missed 2 1⁄2 months with a herniated disc in his back.
On Sunday night, he took the ball again on short rest with his team down 1-0 in the series. The Dodgers treated his relief stint Thursday as if it were a bullpen session before a typical start.
Kershaw said that based on the number of pitches he threw — taking into account warmups and the game — his workload was about the same. Of course, it wasn’t exactly a typical bullpen session. “Intensity might have been just a hair different,” he said.
The Cubs expected to know quickly which version of Kershaw they would face — the regular-season edition with a 1.69 ERA or the drained-by-October ace running on fumes. But Kershaw established early that both his command and velocity were intact. He burned the black — on both sides of the plate — with 95-mph heaters.
Kershaw trusted none of his other pitches, but the first loud contact off him did not come until his 37th pitch, a 94-mph fastball in the fourth that Anthony Rizzo hammered to the right of the rightfield foul pole. But that did nothing to knock the icicles off his bat. He grounded out, falling to 1-for-22 in the postseason.
With two outs in the fourth, Baez and Willson Contreras singled for the Cubs, but Jason Heyward fouled out.
Then the seventh rolled around, historically dangerous territory for Kershaw in October. He could have unraveled after Rizzo walked and catcher Yasmani Grandal dropped Ben Zobrist’s pop-up in front of the screen. But Kershaw froze Zobrist, getting away with a pitch over the plate. Then he jammed Addison Russell just enough to produce a harmless fly to left.
With two outs, Roberts came from the dugout, intent on ending Kershaw’s night. But then he looked his ace in the eye. Kershaw would not budge. He insisted he would get Baez.
“At that point in time, that’s all I needed to hear,” Roberts said.
Soon he would be rewarded. Baez sent his long drive to center and Pederson gloved it. In the Cubs’ dugout, there was no suspense. Said Maddon: “You knew it was just not far enough.”
But on the mound, Kershaw needed a moment to process it all. He looked away, then locked himself in a thousand-yard stare before finally hitching his belt. He wiped the sweat from his face, his night of work complete, relieved that he did not squander his manager’s trust. “I don’t know if it was anything special that I did,” Kershaw said. “But it happened to work out tonight.”