Clayton Kershaw’s slow playoff heartbeat, conditioned by more than a decade’s worth of Octobers, made him the perfect page-turner Sunday for the Dodgers, a team that needed someone sturdy to hold on to after the previous night’s epic meltdown.
And as many times as the relentless Rays tested him in Game 5 of the World Series, Kershaw occasionally bent like a palm tree in the wind. But he did not break, guiding the Dodgers to a 4-2 victory and helping to bring them within one win of their first championship since 1988.
Kershaw wasn’t at his dominant best, allowing two runs in 5 2⁄3 innings. He refused to be rattled, though, especially when Manuel Margot, perhaps growing impatient with a fourth-inning rally that was in the process of fizzling, attempted to steal home. Or when manager Dave Roberts lifted him in the sixth after he had gotten two outs on two pitches.
Or even after the game, as two of his children, Cali and Charley, whirled around him during the Zoom session. "You guys are being maniacs," Kershaw said, but softly, hoping they’d just chill.
"Any dad just wants their kids to be proud of them," Kershaw said. "Cali told me she was tonight, so I’ll take that for sure."
As for the night’s less cuddly tests, Margot’s daring dash was a bold move to try against Kershaw, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and future Hall of Famer. But the Rays never sweat the resumes of their opponents. They do what they do, daring you to stop them, and Margot saw a chance to tie the score at 3.
This time, unlike the mind-boggling end to Saturday’s Game 4, the Dodgers didn’t suffer a major malfunction. Kershaw hasn’t always delivered the right pitch during his playoff career, a narrative that again followed him into this October. But in this case, he backed off the rubber, avoiding a balk, and fired a perfect throw that barely beat Margot’s headfirst slide.
"Honestly, it was just kind of instinct to step off. Thankfully, it’s happened before," said Kershaw, who recalled an unsuccessful try by the Astros’ Carlos Gomez. "Just glad we got him out there."
The lefthander’s quirky delivery from the stretch makes him a logical target because his back is to the runner at third for an extended period. But he had prepped Max Muncy to be his eyes in that scenario, and the first baseman made sure to alert him when Margot broke for the plate, yelling "Home! Home! Home!"
It was a questionable decision by Margot, especially with Kershaw teetering. The Rays opened the first three innings with leadoff hits — only the sixth time that’s happened to Kershaw in 384 career starts — and they cut the deficit to 3-2 in the third inning on Yandy Diaz’s RBI triple and Randy Arozarena’s RBI single.
When Kershaw allowed a pair of walks to start the fourth and found himself in a first-and-third, none-out situation, Roberts had to be getting restless. But after a pop-up and strikeout, Margot’s failed dash finished the job for Kershaw.
Just as Kershaw seemed to be finding his groove, however, Roberts already was plotting his exit strategy, which the two discussed before the sixth. He would get two more batters. But when Kershaw needed only two pitches to record the first two outs of the sixth, putting him at 85 pitches, Roberts headed for the mound anyway — and was booed with every step by the Dodgers partisans among the crowd of 11,437.
Circled by the infielders, Kershaw chatted briefly with his manager. Justin Turner could be seen lobbying for his ace, but Kershaw departed nonetheless.
"I just felt — we felt — that he was at the end," Roberts said. "We talked about it and he executed. He held up his part of the deal. He just grinded. He willed himself to that point. And I will say it wasn’t his best stuff, but he found a way to get outs and I give him all the credit."
Kershaw, who is 2-0 with a 2.31 ERA in this World Series, as well as 4-1 with a 2.93 ERA in this year’s five postseason starts, didn’t seem to have an issue with turning the baseball over to fireballing rookie Dustin May.
"That was the plan," Kershaw said. "We talked about it before the inning, and even though it was just two pitches, which made it seem super-fast, we stuck with the plan, so credit to [Roberts] for that one."
Pulling Kershaw there really wasn’t all that controversial. That’s just how games are managed these days, regardless of who’s on the mound, mostly because of the deep bullpens waiting behind them. Roberts had May, the rookie with a triple-digit fastball, and he retired five of six (two strikeouts) before the manager made a call that truly seemed to be a head-scratcher.
With one out in the eighth and Kevin Kiermaier on first base, Rays manager Kevin Cash sent up Ji-Man Choi as a pinch hitter. Roberts countered by summoning rookie lefthander Victor Gonzalez, which prompted Cash to go with Mike Brosseau instead, with Arozarena on deck. Using Gonzalez against two dangerous righthanded hitters felt like a terrible idea, and even worse when he walked Brosseau.
Up came Arozarena, now the all-time leader in hits (27) and home runs (nine) for a single postseason, but he flied to center on the first pitch. Brandon Lowe popped up, too. After Saturday’s brutal treatment by the baseball gods, Roberts seemed to catch a break.
"I just felt that for them to either take on Victor or to make a three-player move to get a matchup, it’s worth it," Roberts said. "I like Victor spinning the baseball against Arozarena. I just liked the matchup and Victor performed."
Lucky? Probably. But there’s no debating the results.
Now the Dodgers will look to end their title drought on Tuesday. If things go according to plan, Kershaw will be a spectator from here. An anxious one.
"It’s so stressful in the postseason, just because you care so much," he said. "It’s way more stressful watching than pitching."