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As he sat before reporters in a Dodger Stadium interview room, Clayton Kershaw kept coming back to one word: huge.
Austin Barnes’ game-tying single in the fifth inning? Huge.
A 5-2 win in Game 5 to put his Los Angeles Dodgers up three games to two in the National League Championship Series? Huge.
We all occasionally get stuck on one word, but Kershaw gets a break for one big (or should that be huge?) reason: Even in this era where we sometimes celebrate four-inning starts, the value of a truly dominant starting pitcher hasn’t changed that much.
It’s still huge, which is why what Kershaw showed Wednesday did more than simply move the Dodgers within one win of returning to the World Series. The Kershaw who dominated Game 5 is the ace who can lead the Dodgers to a World Series title for the first time in 30 years.
He’s never done it before, not in any of those three seasons when he won a Cy Young Award, nor in the 2014 season when he was also the National League’s Most Valuable Player. We remember the games where he fell short of greatness a lot more than the ones where he dominated, but that’s all part of the burden of being who he is and pitching for the team he represents.
No one has to remind Kershaw that the Dodgers haven’t won a World Series since 1988. It came up again in a press conference this week.
“No disrespect to 1988, we hear about that a lot,” he said. “And I’ve said it before, but we are sick of it. And it’s up to us to do something about it.”
It’s up to all of them. Kershaw won’t be starting Games 6 or 7 this weekend in Milwaukee, so he’ll need to trust his teammates to get him to Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday in Boston or Houston. He’ll need help from his hitters, just as he did after he fell behind 1-0 in the third inning Wednesday.
That was the inning in which Kershaw walked the opposing pitcher and later walked Ryan Braun to load the bases with two outs after the Brewers had scored. It was also the inning in which he seemed to find himself, relying on sliders and curves to strike out Christian Yelich and Jesus Aguilar to keep 1-0 from becoming 3-0 or 4-0.
Andrew Simon @AndrewSimonMLB
After struggling so mightily to miss bats in Game 1 (5 whiffs), Clayton Kershaw has now racked up 19 swings and misses tonight.
That’s his most in a game in 2018.
The eight-pitch Aguilar strikeout ended the third, and though we didn’t know it at the time, it basically ended the Brewers’ night. The 1-0 lead wouldn’t hold, and they didn’t get another baserunner until Aguilar’s two-out double off Ryan Madson in the ninth.
It seemed they might get Kershaw out of the game in the fifth, when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts readied Yasiel Puig to hit for Kershaw if Barnes made an out and the tying run remained on third base with two outs. Kershaw assumed he would be coming out in that situation, which is one reason he called Barnes’ hit “huge.”
After the game, Roberts revealed he was going to stick with Kershaw regardless.
Kershaw ended up going seven innings, allowing only one run on three hits with nine strikeouts. It was his 10th postseason start with no more than two runs and no more than four hits, matching Justin Verlander for second in history behind Roger Clemens’ 11, per Baseball Reference.
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Given the way we so often talk about Kershaw in October, you wouldn’t think that. You’d think most of his starts were like his bad Game 1 in this NLCS, the game in which he went only three innings and gave up five runs (four earned).
At his postgame press conference Wednesday, Kershaw said he wasn’t looking for redemption after that clunker, just as he said he won’t be looking back at Game 5 as a reason why he’ll pitch well the next time. He simply believes in himself and his ability to win, just as the best starting pitchers always have.
He believes it as much now, with a fastball that topped out at 92.5 mph and averaged 90.8, according to Brooks Baseball, as he did back when his average fastball was 93-94 mph and when his best fastballs would come in at 96 or 97. Kershaw doesn’t want to say he has reinvented himself—in an interview that aired Wednesday, he told Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal that he still believes the velocity will return—but like all great pitchers, he knows how to win with what he has.
“Just a classic case of he executed a lot of pitches,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said in his postgame press conference.
Counsell has a fine team, but what he doesn’t have is a Kershaw. Give the Brewers credit for cleverly making use of what they do have, and even for another unconventional move Wednesday, when they started left-hander Wade Miley but had him face only one batter before switching to right-hander Brandon Woodruff.
“We were able to give Woody some matchups,” Counsell said.
The Dodgers are trying to get Kershaw another two or three matchups—in the World Series against either the Red Sox or Brewers. And he’s trying to get the World Series ring that would help define what is already a Hall of Fame career.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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