HOUSTON — The line is thin, sometimes, between being on the brink of elimination and being in control.
Baseball has taught us this many times over. One pitch a few inches off the plate. One hop on a grounder. One deep fly ball hit one foot too short or one foot over an outfielder’s glove. In the World Series, even the best teams straddle the line.
One swing of the bat from George Springer on Saturday night and the Dodgers were a couple innings away from the brink of elimination. One well-placed ninth-inning double from Cody Bellinger and the Dodgers felt the control and the confidence shoot through them.
Then there was Joc Pederson hitting that nail-in-the-coffin homer to secure the 6-2 win for L.A. But the real moment of confidence for anyone wearing the Pantone 294 shade of blue came after the Dodgers sealed their Game 4 win at Minute Maid Park.
After the final out, ace Clayton Kershaw emerged from the dugout and walked toward the pitcher’s mound. He picked up a ball and stood there, like it was Game 5 already.
— MLB (@MLB) October 29, 2017
This was functional — he was getting a feel for the mound he’ll pitch on Sunday. He was maybe even visualizing his next task.
But it was also symbolic — the Dodgers hadn’t just tied the series, they had tied the series with that guy looming the next day. You see him there, Astros? That’s the guy you have to beat. Or end up on the brink yourselves.
“You got the best on the planet going out for you tomorrow,” said Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager. “It’s hard not to be confident. You’re always confident when your guy is on the mound.”
There’s a big difference between having a 2-2 series with Clayton Kershaw starting Game 5 and being in a 3-1 hole with Clayton Kershaw starting Game 5. Instead of survival it’s about taking control.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Rich Hill, who would follow Kershaw in Game 6 as long as things stay according to plan. “Everybody’s excited that Clayton’s on the mound tomorrow.”
It’s not just that he’s on the mound Sunday in Game 5. It’s that he’s on the mound in Game 5 on the right amount of rest. In his routine. In the preferred conditions. And that marks a big change for what we’ve seen in past postseasons from Kershaw and the Dodgers. Usually when it’s a not Game 1, he’s pitching on short rest, sometimes with his team behind or his team trying to squeeze out of a tight situation.
These aren’t those Dodgers. These Dodgers are built so Kershaw doesn’t have pitch Game 4 on short rest. These Dodgers are built so Kershaw doesn’t need to pitch eight innings to get the game to Kenley Jansen. These Dodgers are built to help the best pitcher on the planet thrive.
It’s why manager Dave Roberts had the confidence to pitch Alex Wood in Game 4, even on 10 days rest, even after seeing Yu Darvish get knocked around in Game 3. Some people had to be whispering: “Why not Kershaw? Turn to Kershaw. Kershaw can save us.” But that’s the old way.
“I like where we’re at,” Roberts said. “This series up to this point, we’ve played four games, and there’s been so many emotional swings, and we’re dead even right now. And it’s a three-game series, and we’ve got our ace going tomorrow. So I know that in our clubhouse we feel good. We’re going to enjoy tonight. It was a hard-fought ballgame. But I promise you we’ll be ready to go to win one game tomorrow.”
It’ll be Kershaw, legacy in limbo — fair or not — because it always is. It’ll be Kershaw, a couple bad pitches away from being the under microscope again. But it’ll be Kershaw, set up in the best possible way to avoid all that.
You’d think his masterful Game 1 performance — three hits and one run over seven innings with 11 strikeouts — would shake those monkeys off his back. It should have. But some people won’t be happy until he throws a perfect game to clinch the World Series for the Dodgers in Game 7.
If pitches well enough Sunday in Game 5, there’s a chance this series doesn’t make it to Game 7. There’s a chance the Dodgers seal this thing in six at their home stadium, putting to bed 29 years of not winning the big one.
Kershaw and the Dodgers are intertwined like that. He can win all the Cy Young awards. Or an MVP award. They can win all the division titles. Or 104 games in the regular season. That’s not the standard they’re being held to.
“Kersh has been waiting for this for a long time,” said closer Kenley Jansen. “We have a lot of confidence in him that he’s going to come out there and do great and dominate.
“Everybody just keeps talking about two games that he had bad in the postseason,” Jansen said. “That he had a rough postseason. The fact [is] that he’s one of the greatest, man, out there pitching.”
There’s a thin line there too — between people thinking you’re the greatest and people waiting to tear you down. Silence the Astros in Game 5 and Kershaw can silence a whole lot more people too.
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