ARLINGTON, Texas – Cali Kershaw, 5, a beam of nuclear energy, was flapping around the room, under the table and over it, from side to side, wherever space was allowed. His younger brother, Charley, 3, tried to keep up – to the point that his father, Clayton Kershaw, felt the need to offer a nudge / apology. “You are maniacs,” he said.
It was about 30 minutes after he won Game 5 of the 116th World Series, his second victory, one that pushed the Los Angeles Dodgers to the brink of their first championship in more than three decades. His long hair, his beard always messed up, his face still angelic, his determination hardened, Kershaw hadn’t done his best, and that was OK. Afterwards, Cali told him that she was proud of him, and that was enough.
A guy stays around long enough, and you watch him become the man he should be. Kershaw is 32 years old, he has passed his peak, more of a craftsman than a conqueror. Although there is an almost irresistible instinct to compare our greatest athletes with what they once were and yet, considering that the idea of what they should be, it always seemed unfair. Because for every unicorn that faces Father Time and wins, a hundred others learn the vagaries of age, regression, a clock that strikes non-stop.
The acceptance phase is the most difficult, and that’s where Kershaw, he with the worst reputation in October on this side of the house that distributes Mounds on Halloween, lives today. He’s not what he was and doesn’t need to be, because what led the Dodgers to a 4-2 victory over Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday. The victory left the Dodgers a timid victory from their first championship since 1988 and Kershaw, oh, so close to being sized for the ring that he did not escape any of his fellow pitchers.
Here’s what Kershaw is: good enough, that is, when someone is surrounded by the talent that the Dodgers have, good enough. He is capable of excellence and subject to failure, and is generally closer to the former than to the latter. He is not a character of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Kershaw and October Kershaw, transforming himself into a fatal creature when the calendar changes. It is defective, needs careful handling, more prone to reliability than anything.
He is, in other words, a father. Every October, it seems, reminds us of this because Kershaw is the kind of father who takes his kids to the podium after good days. In 2017, when he still had the blessed arm that threw lightning bolts, Cali sat next to him for the first time at a press conference after the game. In 2018, Charley joined them. Neither was in sight in 2019 because Kershaw would not dare expose them to the fragility of baseball, which last year nearly broke it. He blew up a lead, blew up a series and said, “Everything people say is true now about the postseason.”
What they said is that it wasn’t made for October, that it was a choker, that it didn’t have what it needed. No matter what he said, Kershaw never believed that. No one reaches the heights he has – three National League Cy Young awards, an MVP award, a career ERA in the 2.43 regular season – without the conviction of his ways. If there was a bogeyman in October, whether mental or physical, it would not be impenetrable. He was a pitcher, and pitchers find their way.
This postseason was the replica of Kershaw. Altogether, 30⅔ innings, 23 hitting, 5 hikes and 37 eliminations with an ERA of 2.93 and 4 wins. In Game 5 of the World Series, 5⅔ innings, 5 hits, 2 runs, 2 walks and 6 eliminations. This is Yeoman’s work for someone whose greatest attribute is no longer what his left arm can produce, but the work needed to ensure that he produces at its peak.
Appreciation spread through the Globe Life Field on Sunday, with most of the 11,437 in attendance wearing Dodger blue and bequeathing Kershaw something that was presumably his last outing in 2020: a standing ovation. He had the 3-0 lead that the Dodgers saw him. He worked around a third difficult inning in which he won a couple of races. He transformed a mess of first and third dead ends on Wednesday into a small, elegant escape act, ensuring the final exit from the entrance when he heard first baseman Max Muncy shout, “Get out of here!”
Behind Kershaw, Rays outback Manuel Margot had taken off in a dead sprint, the first attempt at direct stealing from a World Series game since Lonnie Smith did it in 1982. Kershaw fired into the goal, just in time for receiver Austin Barnes to slide a tag inches before Margot’s fingers slide across the plate. In the fifth, Kershaw broke the all-time post-season elimination record. In sixth place, he turned two shots into two outs when Dodger manager Dave Roberts climbed the reserve bench steps and walked towards the mound.
What Roberts greeted was fascinating: boos. Not just whistles or whistles. Good, true and high good from all corners of the stadium. It was October and Dodgers fans were furious that Clayton Kershaw was being pulled out of a game. Just like the Dodgers’ internal players. They asked Roberts to stay with Kershaw. He refused. They wanted to believe that Kershaw was their best self. Roberts believed that Kershaw had done a lot.
When Kershaw left the hill, the screaming started. They got taller. A 5-inch output and two runs is not typical of standing ovations, although it is rarely made up of a fastball in the 91 mph range. That was thanks not only for Game 5, but for caring enough to make Game 5 possible – for not surrendering to the strangeness that is the baseball pandemic and not resigning to the story that others wanted to write for him.
“It feels really good. It feels really good,” said Kershaw. “Whenever you can succeed in the postseason, it means a lot. That’s what you work for. That’s what you play for this month. I know how the other side of it is, too. I’m sure I’ll take it when I get it. “
Roberts’ withdrawal to the shelter brought another wave of mockery, although that was the plan all along, a plan that Kershaw had learned to understand because age for him may have an inverse relationship to talent, but it has a direct relationship to the wisdom . Kershaw, always an obstinate competitor, always wants more. He simply came to accept that more is not always possible or certain.
Roberts’ luck is inextricably linked to Kershaw. They shared some of their worst moments, and because of that, Roberts did not deviate from Kershaw’s plan to face between 21 and 24 hitters. After his 22nd hitter, having launched 85 shots, 56 of them for hitting, mostly on a slider that had seen much better days, Kershaw passed the ball to Dustin May, whose fastball records 10 mph more on the radar than Kershaw .
“He just ground it,” said Roberts. “He worked his way up to that point. And I will say, it wasn’t his best job, but he found a way out, and I give him all the credit.”
Joc Pederson and Max Muncy hit solo home runs, while Clayton Kershaw hits six hitters in the Dodgers’ Game 5 win against the Rays.
For anyone who sees this as a pedestrian because it does not correspond to a pattern that he himself abandoned long ago, consider: What Kershaw can do now, diminished, is still extraordinarily impressive. It is only in a less obvious way. It is a three-dimensional view of a jar – where it is in time, what are the reasonable expectations for it and how it has evolved – in a world that gravitates towards the easiest assessment, which is to digest numbers and spit them out of the missing context.
This is not Kershaw’s absolution. He failed in October. It blew up games, series, seasons. In game 5 of the 2017 World Series against Houston, his implosion may have cost the Dodgers a ring. In game 5 of the 2018 World Series against Boston, he failed to prevent the Red Sox from crowning. In game 5 of the 2020 World Series, however, the day after the Rays fled the Dodgers like a gunshot wound to the stomach, Kershaw calmly healed wounds – those of his teammates and his years old.
Now, except for Roberts to get out of the script and ask Kershaw to take a brief break for the first time this season in a potential Game 7, it’s up to the other 27 Dodgers to give Kershaw what he did his best to give them. May, Victor Gonzalez and Blake Treinen did it in Game 5, closing the Rays for the final 3 ings innings and giving Roberts a large deposit at Told Ya So Bank. Kershaw never won two games in a post-season series until he won Games 1 and 5 of this World Series.
A victory in Game 6 on Tuesday or Game 7 on Wednesday would take him off the list of Cy Young’s three winners without a championship. He is the only one out of 10. And of the pitchers who have won at least four ERA titles, but no World Series titles. He is also one of the 10 present. Likewise, 10 pitchers won an MVP in the post-1961 era of expansion, and Kershaw is the only one without a ring.
At some point in the next 72 hours, all of this could go away and it would bring Kershaw back to that room, sitting at the table, talking to a camera, but actually to the world. He would tell them what it’s finally like to be a champion, how it all paid off. Right next to him would be Cali and Charley, excited as if they had a Red Bull IV, because their father, the one who finally grew up and became what he should be, made them proud.