CHICAGO — They met on the field as one, the fielders converging on the mound, the others leaping over the railings of the cramped Wrigley Field dugout onto the diamond. Inside the flock of Los Angeles Dodgers, a group headed to the World Series for the first time since 1988, Clayton Kershaw blended into the pack, relishing an 11-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs to clinch the National League pennant in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series.
On a night when a 29-season drought ended, Kershaw reaped the benefits of an offensive bounty. Enrique Hernandez supplied a trio of home runs, including a grand slam in the third inning that transformed Wrigley Field into a tomb and a two-run blast in the ninth that turned the Dodgers dugout into a mosh pit. The Dodgers led by seven runs after three innings and by nine midway through four. Kershaw responded to the largess with six innings of one-run, three-hit baseball. He will be ready to start Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.
As October approached, the viability of Kershaw remained uncertain. He missed five weeks during the summer because of a back injury, his second in as many years. He surrendered more homers in 2017 than ever before. He gave up four homers in Game 1 of the division series against Arizona, highlighting his vulnerability in this new era of launch angles and exit velocity.
In the past, the Dodgers relied upon Kershaw as their savior. In this postseason, they have lifted him up.
For nearly 30 years, the Dodgers glittered like a bauble, the wattage of their star power outweighing their organizational strength. At one point in the 1990s, a Dodger won National League rookie of the year five seasons in a row. Yet from 1989 to 2012, the team captured only four division titles. They poisoned the well with Mike Piazza and Gary Sheffield. They traded Pedro Martinez too soon. They stuck with Manny Ramirez too long.
The Dodgers hoped Kershaw might be different. In the spring of 2008, less than two years after the team selected him sixth overall in the draft, Kershaw unleashed a curveball in a Cactus League game. The downward bite of the pitch astonished legendary announcer Vin Scully. “Public Enemy No. 1,” Scully called it, and the rest of the sport would soon buckle beneath its force.
Kershaw debuted in the majors at 20. He won his first NL Cy Young Award at 23. By the time he was 26, he owned three Cy Youngs, an NL MVP and the honorific of “Best Pitcher In Baseball.” Only October glory eluded him.
“People talk about the postseason failures that I’ve had a lot,” Kershaw said earlier this spring. “And I understand that.”
The burden rested on his shoulders heavier than anyone. For years, Kershaw volunteered to pitch on short rest in the postseason. The Dodgers could not afford for him to waver, and they departed for the winter when he did. In October, Atlas cannot shrug.
As president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi reshaped the roster, after taking over in 2015, they sought to devise a roster that complemented Kershaw rather than exploiting him. They mined the trade market, the free-agent market and the waiver wire for depth. It became an organizational mantra, a guiding principal that was invoked so often it felt like a punchline.
Yet they followed the blueprint. The team executed a convoluted three-team swap in 2015 that netted Alex Wood. They acquired Rich Hill last summer and retained him as a free agent last winter. Racing away with their fifth consecutive NL West title this summer, they traded for Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish. The bolstered rotation allowed Kershaw to gut through this postseason without added strain.
On Wednesday afternoon, Kershaw parked himself behind a podium and fielded questions about the coming days. He was preparing to pitch a day later, even if he preferred a victory in Game 4. After the Cubs survived to extend the series, Kershaw walked the halls outside the Dodgers clubhouse cradling his infant son Charley and cooing the boy to sleep.
A day later, at 20 minutes past 6 p.m. local time, the Dodgers trotted off the field to finish batting practice. The group walked past a lone figure on the bench, clad in a team-issued jacket, his cap covering his shaggy hair. No one spoke to Kershaw. As his teammates clambered into the clubhouse, he climbed the steps onto the field. Alone in right field, he loosened up.
Kershaw had not pitched in this ballpark since Game 6 of last year’s NLCS, when the Cubs jumped him in the first inning and taxed him for five runs in all. Unlike 2016, Kershaw took the mound on Thursday with a lead.
Chris Taylor started the game with a nine-pitch at-bat against Cubs starter Jose Quintana. Taylor hung around after Quintana picked up two strikes in order to take the free pass. Two batters later, Cody Bellinger turned on a 93-mph fastball and doubled into the right-field corner. Taylor sprinted home. Bellinger took third on the throw, but finished the inning stranded.
Kershaw looked formidable from the start. He snapped a pair of curveballs to fan Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. His fastball touched 96 mph. He induced a pair of groundouts from third baseman Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, the heart of the Cubs lineup, to end the inning.
When Kershaw retook the mound in the second, his team’s lead had doubled. Hernandez blitzed Quintana on the first pitch of the top of the inning. Hernandez tossed his bat into the grass as he watched a solo shot clear the fence in center.
An inning later, the Dodgers forced Quintana off the mound. Taylor led off with a double. Justin Turner drove him home with a single. After singles by Bellinger and Yasiel Puig loaded the bases, Cubs manager Joe Maddon had no choice. He opened up his bullpen, a group of relievers as volatile as nitroglycerine in the sun.
The desperation of Maddon only went so far. He chose Hector Rondon, rather than Jon Lester or Kyle Hendricks, who might have started later in the series. Rondon flipped a slider over the plate to Hernandez, who drilled it toward right center. Hernandez pumped his first when the baseball landed in the basket above the ivy for a grand slam and a 7-0 lead.
The big cushion allowed Kershaw to attack the Cubs. A seven-run lead expanded to nine in the fourth, when Logan Forsythe stroked a two-run double off John Lackey.
By the fourth inning, the Cubs had still not recorded a hit. That ended when Bryant launched a first-pitch fastball deep to left. The solo homer ended Kershaw’s bid for a shutout, but he pitched around a single to complete the inning. He froze second baseman Javier Baez with an outside fastball for a strikeout in the fifth.
Kyle Schwarber tested the spryness of Kershaw’s back in the sixth, dropping a bunt on the left side of the infield. Kershaw slid across the grass for the baseball, but Schwarber beat the throw. The play did not deter Kershaw. Bryant hit a sharp grounder into Turner’s glove at third. Rizzo hit a soft liner into Forsythe’s glove with the second baseman’s shift into short right field.
In the dugout, Roberts approached Kershaw and offered his hand. The night was over for the best pitcher in baseball, the man the Dodgers rode for so many years. He beamed and swept his hands through his hair. He took a seat for the final three innings to watch a team worthy of standing alongside him.
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