David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
When Clayton Kershaw was finished Sunday night, when Javier Baez’s scary-deep fly ball landed in Joc Pederson’s glove a few feet in front of the centerfield ivy, we imagined the Dodgers’ ace going full Russell Crowe, screaming “Gladiator”-style to the startled Wrigley Field crowd, “Are you not entertained?”
What else do you want from Kershaw? What more do you desire from the best pitcher of his generation, and arguably beyond? Is this October not good enough, not special enough to swat away the buzzing narrative that Kershaw always shrinks on the biggest stage?
Of course it is. That talk is over, as dead as Kershaw made the toothless Cubs look during the Dodgers’ 1-0 victory in NLCS Game 2 Sunday night, when they touched him for only two hits — both singles — in seven innings.
Kershaw breezed through the early innings so rapidly, so effortlessly, that a complete game and a shutout appeared to be foregone conclusions.
That would have been fun, if only to see Kershaw act as his own closer, maybe with Dodgers manager Dave Roberts allowing him to strut in from the bullpen as he did for Thursday night’s Division Series clincher in D.C.
You remember that, right? Kershaw volunteered to finish the Nationals on his throw day, a time usually reserved as a tune up for a pitcher’s next start — not wrestling with the NL East champs in an elimination game.
Sadly, it didn’t come to that. We didn’t get the same goose-bump theatrics Kershaw provided last week. Instead, everyone had to settle for a vintage Kershaw performance, taming the Cubs in their own backyard in what felt like a must-win game for the Dodgers before the NLCS switches to Chavez Ravine for tomorrow’s Game 3.
“I’ve said it time and time again, he’s the best pitcher on the planet,” Roberts said. “I’ll take him any day, as well as 29 other managers. And for me, the history, it has no bearing on anything. This is a new year, and he’s shown what he can do in the postseason. So I don’t think anybody in that clubhouse cares about that narrative”
Kershaw now is polishing up a newly forged, sterling playoff reputation to accompany his three Cy Young Awards, a few fresh paragraphs for an upgraded October resume. Not only is Kershaw delivering in the Dodgers’ highest-leverage moments this month, but after a regular season interrupted by back issues, he’s doing it in erratic, more strenuous intervals.
With Thursday night’s save, the first of his major-league career, Kershaw became the first pitcher since 1969 to do it in a winner-take-all situation after starting the previous game of the series. He made his relief appearance two days after throwing 110 pitches in 6 2⁄3 innings in Game 4. After Roberts flat-out said Kershaw would not be available that night, the lefthander asked for clearance from the team’s medical staff to take the mound and got the final two outs.
Kershaw is stepping up in a way the Dodgers desperately need to stay afloat. The fact that he’s still saddled with a 4-6 postseason record and 4.39 ERA shouldn’t matter much anymore. Those numbers are in the past, and he chooses to look ahead — as well as pretend the questions no longer exist.
When someone asked him about coming through this October, Kershaw shrugged it off without getting into much detail. “I don’t how to answer that,” he said. “It’s fun to win, yeah.”
In other words, don’t go down that road with him, because Kershaw won’t play along. Given the opportunity Sunday night to further dismiss those claims, Kershaw was perfect until there were two outs in the fifth inning, when Baez — who else? — punched a 72-mph curveball into centerfield. Willson Contreras followed up with another single, igniting the previously sedate Wrigley crowd, but the excitement was short-lived. Next up was Jason Heyward, and Kershaw got the $184-million man to pop up to third in foul territory.
The Cubs didn’t get another hit off Kershaw, and their only additional baserunner came on Anthony Rizzo’s four-pitch walk leading off the seventh, an innings that had been a personal quicksand bog for Kershaw over the years. This time, however, he survived it, as did the Dodgers.
“What this guy’s done is dig deep,” Roberts said. “And I can’t say enough about Clayton Kershaw.”
More importantly for Kershaw, the conversation has changed.