Look, ma—it went to the end of the seventh inning. And Clayton Kershaw wasn’t in flames when the inning ended.
Kershaw needed Game Two. He wasn’t exactly pitching on short rest. If you counted from his Game Four start in the division series, and considered his off-the-chart two outs of closing relief in Game Five—sending the Dodgers to this National League Championship Series in the first place—equivalent to a between-starts bullpen session, he actually pitched NLCS Game Two on regular rest.
Good thing, too. Because the Dodgers needed Game Two a little more than even Kershaw did.
He needed to come, see, conquer, and get that alleged seventh inning postseason monkey off his back and out of his sight. Especially when the Cubs began wringing pitches out of him in the sixth Sunday night. Especially with a chance to send the set to Los Angeles even-up.
Kershaw came. He saw. And, he conquered. Maybe it wasn’t the prettiest game he ever pitched in his life, but it was enough. More than enough, as things turned out.
With the Dodgers pretty much eking out a 1-0 win over the Cubs no matter how wobbly their starter Kyle Hendricks looked—Adrian Gonzalez took care of the scoring with an opposite-field homer into the left center field basket leading off the second—they needed as good as they could get from Kershaw.
Not to mention a six-out save from Kenley Jansen when Kershaw’s tank finally hit E after seven.
The game began as the first showdown between two starters with 2.25 or lower ERAs since Bob Gibson and Denny McLain in the 1968 World Series. It turned into a contest of will between Kershaw and the Cubs bullpen. Kershaw’s end of it ended only when Javier Baez missed a two-run homer by a foot, as Joc Pederson caught it against the Wrigley ivy.
“We want him there,” said catcher Yasmani Grandal after the game. “Everybody was on the same page. We knew exactly what we wanted to do. We knew we could get him out. So it was just a matter of executing.”
Jansen’s too quick and dirty six outs to come merely hammered home an exclamation point. Why, Kershaw even managed to get rid of his first fourteen batters, the first Dodger pitcher to pull that off since his periodic mentor Sandy Koufax in the 1963 World Series.
The Dodgers needed that kind of performance to recover from the dramatic manner in which the Cubs upended them late in Game One. Kershaw needed it to begin getting rid of a perhaps-unfair reputation for wilting in the seventh inning in postseason work.
* Game One, 2014 division series, against the Cardinals. The Dodgers leading 6-2, Kershaw working on five plus days’ rest, a vulnerable rest period for him historically. Three unanswered singles and the bases loaded, then-manager Don Mattingly stands by his man’s heart. Strikeout, RBI single, strikeout, then Matt Carpenter unloads a bases-clearing double.
* Game Five, same division series. The Dodgers leading 2-0, two men on and nobody out in the bottom of the seventh. Inexplicably, when Kershaw needed a double play ball at minimum, catcher A.J. Ellis called for something down the pipe. Kershaw is a trusting fellow. He trusts his catchers. This time, his trust was violated. And Matt Adams hit it into the right field bullpen. Series over. The Cardinals went on to the NLCS and their own miseries.
* Game One, 2015 division series. The Mets had a measly 1-0 lead when Kershaw went out to pitch the top of the seventh. He walked the bases loaded and raised no objection when Mattingly lifted him for Pedro Baez. Whatever he raised—hell, very likely—after Baez surrendered a two-run single to David Wright post haste, on a night Jacob deGrom outpitched Kershaw by the latter’s own admission, he raised out of sight.
* Game Four, this year’s division series, last week. Against the Nationals. Once again, Kershaw left the seventh with the bases loaded. And once again the Dodger bullpen came to relieve him with torches instead of pitches.
Did they learn? You’d like to think so. But then you remember the heart attack they nearly gave Kershaw Sunday night in the seventh, after he walked Anthony Rizzo on four pitches to open.
Ben Zobrist popped one up behind the plate. Grandal looked for it, settled under it, got his glove up too late, and the ball hit the ground. Kershaw doubled over. Every Dodger fan on earth probably saw Carpenter, Adams, Wright, and last week’s parade of Nats in that moment.
Everyone but Kershaw. He proved on the mound how tired he is of being faced with his postseason seventh inning past. He picked himself up, dusted himself off, struck out Zobrist on a fastball down the pipe that absolutely froze the Cubs utility virtuoso. Then Addison Russell flied out. Then manager Dave Roberts visited the mound and discovered soon enough his man wasn’t about to surrender.
Neither was Baez when he sent that fastball on the corner high toward to the ivy. Good thing Pederson outran it and leaned against the leaves to catch it.
“I just thought I could get him out, yeah, that was really it,” said Kershaw after the game, in his usual calm manner—once he let go of a question about the Baez drive (That’s your first freaking question?) right out of the postgame chute, that is.
“Seeing Kenley warm up — [seven] outs is a lot to ask to get a save, and if we could kind of spare him one more up-and-down between innings, only do it once as opposed to twice, that was part of it, I guess,” he continued. “But mainly, I thought I could get him out and came really close to not doing it.”
Kershaw probably wanted to treat Pederson to wagyu no sumibiyaki the minute the center fielder wrapped his glove around Baez’s drive. With Jansen as an invited special guest.