CHICAGO – Clayton Kershaw has the hardware, three Cy Young awards and an MVP. He has the left arm, rested and ready. Now, he has the stage: Saturday night, Wrigley Field, the year’s dominant team and story line against him.
“That’s their guy, their ace,” said Dexter Fowler, the Chicago Cubs center fielder. “We know what that means. We understand the challenge.”
All of baseball understands. Kershaw, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ incomparable left-hander, is among the sport’s most familiar entities. He will start the sixth game of the National League Championship Series with a simple goal but a strenuous task: extending the Dodgers’ season. A Cubs victory will send them to their first World Series since 1945. A Dodgers victory will force a seventh game Sunday night.
“We’ve got Clayton going in Game 6,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. “So that’s a game we expect to win.”
It is a reasonable assessment for anyone wearing the Dodgers’ version of blue. Consider Kershaw, not just this month, but over the entirety of his career. Since he debuted for the Dodgers, making 21 starts and one relief appearance in 2008, he has a 2.37 ERA, the best of any starting pitcher during that time. He has allowed just over one walk and hit per inning pitched (WHIP), also the best mark during that span. For his career, opposing hitters have managed a .202 average off him. Yep, that’s the best, too.
“Let’s start with Kershaw,” Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said. “If he’s on top of his game, it’s going to be another very close, low-scoring game. We just have to do our best to eke out as many runs as we can. And on the other side, you have to pitch better than good pitching to win.”
The other side: Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks. The Dartmouth grad – he looks the part, for sure – is coming off what might remain the best year of his career even if he pitches for 15 more seasons. He led all of baseball in ERA (2.13), and he does it by inducing the highest rate of soft contact of any pitcher in baseball, twirling his 89-mph fastball at hitters, who produce grounder after grounder.
Hendricks gave up just one run to the Dodgers in 5 1/3 innings in Game 2 of this series. He’s well aware who was on the other side then. He’s hyper-aware who will oppose him Saturday.
“I think in the playoffs it is a little more between the pitchers than in the regular season,” Hendricks said. “I only say that because [in the] regular season, you really don’t look at it at all. In the playoffs, you definitely look at it. I think that’s the difference, especially when you’re going up against a guy like Kershaw. You know he’s over there.”
Because, with Kershaw, there’s no considering his current postseason situation without considering his star-crossed postseason past, some review. This will be Kershaw’s fifth playoff start in which the Dodgers have faced elimination.
In the sixth game of the 2013 NLCS, St. Louis crushed him. He didn’t record an out in the fifth inning, gave up 10 hits and was charged with seven runs in a 9-0 drubbing that sent the Cardinals to the World Series. The next year in the division series, he was more effective, but Cardinals slugger Matt Adams got him for a three-run homer in the seventh, and the Dodgers lost, 3-2.
Last year, with the Dodgers trailing the Mets two games to one in the division series, Kershaw took the ball on short rest and had, to this point, one of his most important and effective starts, a 3-1 victory in which he allowed just three hits over seven innings. Then just last week – though it seems so long ago – he faced the Washington Nationals at Dodger Stadium, again on short rest, again with the Dodgers trailing in the series. He left with the bases loaded and a 5-2 lead in the seventh, and when Pedro Baez and Luis Avilan allowed all of those runners to score, he was charged with five runs. The Dodgers won anyway, and survived.
Because of his standing not just in the Los Angeles rotation, but in the sport, Kershaw has so frequently been asked to pitch on three days’ rest. The Dodgers could have done that in this series, running him out there for Game 5 on Thursday, a game in which Los Angeles right-hander Kenta Maeda lasted all of 3 2/3 innings.
“I always tell them I’ll do whatever they want,” Kershaw said.
The advantage of starting Kershaw on Thursday might – might — have been a better chance at a Dodger victory, and perhaps even Kershaw’s available for a brief appearance in relief in a Game 7, just as he recorded the final two outs against Washington last week.
But Kershaw has never started on short rest twice in the same postseason. He now will have not just his normal four days off, but five days since he pitched seven shutout innings against the Cubs in Game 2, a 1-0 Dodgers’ victory. Plus, there is a theory that Kershaw could be more rested, period, because he missed two-and-a-half months with a back injury. Even adding in his postseason workload, Kershaw has pitched just 168-1/3 innings, fewer than in any season since his rookie year of 2008.
“I guess common sense would say that,” Kershaw said. “If you haven’t done something, you’re probably fresher. But I never really felt bad in previous Octobers. I’ve always felt the same. So I don’t know.”
His point, in a roundabout way, is a good one. How can we predict, in the days before the latest most important start of a man’s career, how it will go?
The only thing that can be predicted, with any degree of certainty: Baseball’s best pitcher and baseball’s best story will share the same stage Saturday night. What a sight.
“At this time of the year, if you wanted to get to your ultimate goal, you have to beat people like that,” Maddon said. “You have to. Normally, this time of year ,the opposition’s going to field some really good pitching, both starting and relieving. The line’s always been for me: You’ve got to pitch better than good pitching to win.”