CHICAGO — One of the few physical keepsakes Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw took from his save in Game 5 of the NLDS came from teammate Charlie Culberson, who had the presence of mind to snag the baseball from the ground during the postgame celebration.
But on Sunday night, in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, Kershaw will learn if he took with him another unintended souvenir from that historic night. When Kershaw starts against the Cubs, the Dodgers will find out if their ace’s golden arm can withstand the strain of pushing his team into the next round.
“I feel fine, I feel good,” Kershaw said. “I’m excited.”
Kershaw’s last save as a professional came during his earliest days in the minor leagues. But on Thursday night, desperation called. Manager Dave Roberts deployed closer Kenley Jensen in the seventh inning to stop an uprising. By the ninth, he was gassed, and the Nationals were threatening.
Just two days earlier, Kershaw had thrown 110 pitches in a start. Earlier Thursday, Roberts had dismissed the notion of using the lefthander, who missed a chunk of the regular season with a back injury. Nevertheless, one of the best starters in the game headed to the bullpen to begin warming up.
When his number was called, Kershaw recorded the final two outs to send the Dodgers to the NLCS for the first time since 2013.
On Saturday, just two days after saving the season, Kershaw was among the first Dodgers on the field to stretch. He had yet to be officially announced as the Game 2 starter, but hours before first pitch, he readied himself for his next assignment.
For Roberts, the decision to start Kershaw was as straightforward as checking on the lefty’s physical condition.
“I think for me, it was more the conversation, and it’s not complicated in the sense of if he feels good,” Roberts said. “Then it’s a no-brainer. It’s just more of just getting assurance that he feels good physically, which he does.”
The back injury limited Kershaw to 149 innings in 21 starts this season. He went 12-4 with a 1.69 ERA, a demonstration of his dominance. But with a loaded lineup that scored 808 runs during the regular season — second most in the National League — the Cubs present another difficult challenge for him.
When he takes the mound in Game 2 against the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks — who went 9-2 with a 1.32 ERA at Wrigley Field this season — Kershaw’s heroics in relief will have little bearing.
“It really doesn’t matter at this point,” he said. “I know the Cubs don’t care. They know we’re trying to beat them just as bad as they’re trying to beat us. And that’s what we’re focused on right now.”
12-4, 1.69, 172 K
Career vs. Cubs
Toughest out: Dexter Fowler (.440)
16-8, 2.13, 170K
Career vs. Dodgers
Toughest out: Justin Turner (.286)