CHICAGO — At the intersection of Addison and Clark, where hope and heartache have been roommates at Wrigley Field for 107 years, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw will take the mound for Saturday night’s Game 6 with history clenched tightly in his left palm.
Kershaw has been better at commanding a baseball than anyone on the planet for the past six seasons, winning three Cy Young awards, including two back-to-back, in establishing himself as the gold standard for his position. His job this time? Deny a Cubs’ team what many believed to be their destiny from Opening Day — the franchise’s first trip to the World Series since 1945.
When you factor in the Cubbies’ championship drought, Saturday’s storyline has been a century in the making. The Dodgers even helped write the script by keeping Kershaw on his regular turn rather than pitching him on short rest for Game 5 in Los Angeles. And with Kenta Maeda’s failure, Kershaw now stands as the Cubs’ lone remaining obstacle, a 6-4, shaggy-haired dream-slayer, no longer bothered by his own October ghosts.
“We’ve got Clayton going in Game 6,” manager Dave Roberts said after his Dodgers stumbled again Thursday night. “So that’s a game we expect to win.”
Kershaw previously has pitched in four elimination games — five if you count his clinching save against the Nats earlier this month — and the best of that bunch was his dominant performance to beat the Mets at Citi Field last year in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. With the Flushing crowd taunting him with sing-song “Ker-shaw! Ker-shaw!” chants, the Dodgers’ ace allowed only three hits with eight strikeouts over seven innings to force a Game 5 back at Chavez Ravine.
Overall, with Los Angeles facing elimination, Kershaw is 1-2 with a 6.08 ERA in those starts, allowing 24 hits over 23 2⁄3 innings and striking out 33. Those numbers, however, are inflated by Kershaw’s more distant pratfalls, specifically a 9-0 waxing by the Cardinals in Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS in which he allowed seven runs over four innings. It would be more logical to anticipate what we witnessed during last Sunday’s narrative-buster at Wrigley in Game 2, when Kershaw pitched seven scoreless innings — three days after his curtain-closing save in D.C.
Wrigley was eerily quiet for most of that evening, and the only scary moment came on his final out, when Javier Baez launched a deep fly ball to the warning track to end the seventh, an inning which had always been Kershaw’s personal bugaboo. Otherwise, Kershaw couldn’t have been more comfortable playing catch on the beach in Santa Monica.
“I think you do everything you can to try and keep it just like another start at the beginning,” Kershaw said Thursday. “Then obviously the magnitude and the situation of the game kind of raises everybody’s adrenaline. But I’m trying to keep it the same right now.”
If there’s one underlying current that could work against Kershaw, it might be his accumulated October workload. So far, Kershaw twice has made starts on three days’ rest and he was used as closer the night after throwing 110 pitches in Game 4 of the NLDS. But Kershaw required only 84 pitches for those seven scoreless in Game 2 and he’ll start Saturday on five days rest. We should see quickly if that opportunity to recharge a bit more has a noticeable effect.
“The thing that I’ve learned, unless you’re walking a mile in those shoes, you have no idea why they made the decision that they did,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Who knows exactly how he feels, how much they want to push him right now based on the usage to this point, how his back is.”
Maddon was alluding to Kershaw’s herniated disc, which caused him to miss 2 1⁄2 months this season. On the flip side, the back issue limited Kershaw to 149 innings during the regular season — his lowest total since his 2008 rookie year — so maybe there’s a benefit to that, too. “I don’t think it really works like that, honestly,” Kershaw said. “But I feel good. So, sure.”
Good enough to thwart destiny on the North Side? That’s the question.