Published 9:54 PM EDT Oct 17, 2018
LOS ANGELES – It wasn’t so much a pivotal Game 5 of the National League Championship Series as it was dueling referendums, Clayton Kershaw versus his doubters and demons and the Milwaukee Brewers battling a century-plus of baseball orthodoxy.
Throughout this postcard-perfect 82-degree Wednesday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, as sunshine gave way to shadows, Kershaw kept strolling out of the home dugout, climbing the hill and eliciting swings and misses from a Brewers lineup that dominated him just four days earlier.
He was trying to pitch the Dodgers toward a second consecutive World Series appearance, of course, but it also felt like a defense of his Hall of Fame caliber career and his profession – that aces matter, that they can be expected to rise to the occasion even in an era when data and decision-makers threaten to marginalize individual greatness on the mound for good.
And in what could have been his final start in a Dodgers uniform, Kershaw dazzled, mixing his pitches to perfection, keeping the Brewers off balance and refusing to yield until the Dodgers’ impotent offense could gain the upper hand.
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He followed the worst postseason performance of his career with one of his greatest, giving up just three hits over seven innings as the Dodgers claimed a 5-2 victory before 54,502 fans who wondered whether this would be their final home game of the season.
It may be yet, but the Brewers’ task is now much larger: Win two games at home against a Dodgers team that battered their bullpen in Games 1-2 at Miller Park.
The Dodgers? They’re one win from a return trip to the World Series after Kershaw limited the Brewers to three hits and a run over seven innings.
Kershaw’s postseason legacy, such as it is, is a complicated one, as many of his biggest pratfalls have been borne of circumstance – a leaky bullpen, an overzealous manager or the simple reality of pitching through two to three rounds of postseason play. Entering Thursday, his postseason marks – 8-8, 4.26 ERA – reflected outings both season-saving and soul-crushing.
This NLCS has been pretty black and white, though: Kershaw was awful in Game 1, excellent in Game 5.
Where he earned just five swings and misses from Brewers batters in Game 1, he got 18 on Wednesday – particularly when he needed them the most.
Trailing 1-0 in the third, one out and second and third and the presumed NL MVP, Christian Yelich at the plate: Four pitches and Yelich was down swinging.
After a partially intentional walk to Ryan Braun loaded the bases, Kershaw squared off against 35-home run man Jesus Aguilar and an eight-pitch battle unfolded, the sort that ended very badly for Kershaw in Game 1.
This time, he found a putaway pitch.
Aguilar fouled off five pitches before Kershaw spotted a fastball in the dirt that Aguilar fanned at to end the threat.
It was tied 1-1 in the sixth when Kershaw found danger, falling behind 3-1 to Braun, who was 10 for 31 this postseason coming in.
Kershaw did not give in, executing a pair of sliders – one that Braun swung through, the other that he dribbled back to Kershaw. After another punchout of Aguilar – this one on a beguiling 74-mph curveball – it was winning time for the Dodgers.
They pushed across the go-ahead run in the bottom of the inning on Max Muncy’s RBI single, which chased starter Brandon Woodruff from the game.
Wait. That’s non-starter Brandon Woodruff.
The real starter, Wade Miley, pitched to just one batter – walking Cody Bellinger – before he was lifted in what could best be described as a ruse by Brewers manager Craig Counsell. In this era of hyper-specialization, Counsell wanted to “capture” as many matchups as he could by luring the Dodgers into starting a lineup thick on right-handers, then switching immediately to the right-handed Woodruff.
By and large, it worked. Woodruff struck out eight and blanked the Dodgers into the sixth, a crucial bit of length just hours after the teams played a 13-inning epic in Tuesday night’s Game 4.
But the Dodgers dinged him for single runs in the fifth and sixth, then pushed across three more in the seventh, with Kershaw drawing a walk and scoring on Justin Turner’s single.
The Dodgers’ pen was taxed, too – closer Kenley Jansen pitched two innings Tuesday – but Kershaw’s handiwork lightened their load.
Ultimately, Kershaw - who can opt out of his Dodgers contract at year's end - for seven innings was better than a five-man Brewer crew over that same span. One playoff victory won’t end any debates on pitcher usage or one man’s legacy, certainly.
For now, it was good enough to push the Dodgers to the brink of another World Series