For nearly 30 years, the Dodgers glittered like a bauble, the wattage of its star power outweighing its 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 Clayton 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. He called it “Public Enemy No. 1,” and the rest of the sport would soon buckle beneath its force. Kershaw debuted in the majors at 20. He won his first National League Cy Young Award at 23. By the time he was 26, he owned three Cy Young Awards, was a National League MVP, and the honorific of “Best Pitcher In Baseball.” Only October eluded him.
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 complimented 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 principle 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 the NL West this summer, they traded for Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish. The bolstered rotation allowed Kershaw to gut through this postseason without added strain.
As October approached, however, Kershaw’s viability 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 National League Division Series, highlighting his vulnerability in this new era of launch angles and exit velocity.
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.
In the past, the Dodgers relied upon Kershaw as their savior. In this postseason, they have lifted him up. On the night the Dodger’s 28-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. He’s now the 10th player in Major League history to have three homers in a postseason game; Jose Altuve became the 9th when he hit triple homers against the Red Sox in the ALDS. The Dodgers led by 7 runs after three innings, and by 9 midway through the 4th. Kershaw responded to the largess with six innings of one-run baseball, looking formidable from the first pitch.
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 finally worthy of standing alongside 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. Kershaw will be ready to start Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium. In October, Atlas cannot shrug.
The World Series begins Tuesday at Dodger Stadium