CHICAGO – If you weren’t careful or are wholly a romantic, you might’ve mistook the reddened eyes for something other than a conditional chemical creation. He’d toasted his teammates and drank from the trophy and then hoisted his wife in his arms, so that her feet dangled above the infield grass. Then he was reminded, as if he might’ve forgotten, that he’d pitched the only organization he’d ever known into its first World Series since the year he was born, and Clayton Kershaw said, “It’s one of the best days of my life.”
The obvious frontrunners were before him. His wife, Ellen, stood off to the side, popping a binky into young Charley’s mouth, then chasing it when it was ejected, again and again, and corralling Cali, their daughter, who simply wanted to dance and run in her pink boots.
He doesn’t often care much for the forced stories about his pitching, whatever the time of year, or his so-called redemption, or what it all means when it more often meant 100 or so pitches, one at a time, no less, no more. This, however, this was different, and he knew it, they all knew it, and he smiled and said, “If we win, I might retire. I might call it a career,” and no one believed him.
After so many years of trying, the last seven or eight with Kershaw at the front of their rotation and pulling with all his might, the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday night handed the ball to Kershaw and then 25 of them walked into the World Series together. He threw six tidy innings in what was an 11-1 walkover over the Cubs in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. He’d not been asked to do more, to pitch himself to exhaustion, to cover for this or that, but simply to do his part. In 11 National League championship innings over two starts he gave up three runs, then watched his bullpen throw seven scoreless innings behind him. No wonder, then, it was the part about how he appreciated his teammates when his eyes went from clear to caustically compromised, as Enrique Hernandez had promised, “Hey, I got your back tonight,” and then homered three times, and not long thereafter 23 other familiar faces met near the mound at Wrigley Field and thought, Can you believe this?
In his final hours of preparation Thursday afternoon, there’d been no talk of the significance of finishing the Chicago Cubs before they could come back to life. Not from Kershaw, anyway.
“Because,” his pitching coach, Rick Honeycutt, said, “he pitches every game like it’s his last. It’s about staying in the moment. He’s set the tone ever since he’s been here.
“We put undue pressure on a young man, on a ballclub that didn’t have near what this one has. And, right from the beginning, he was different. Now he’s put this organization in a good spot. I’m happy for him he was on the mound.”
He’d shown up a little gangly and a little imprecise, and grew quickly into what everyone could see was more than a sum of his three pitches. Yet, every season would end like the last. Kershaw, often enough, could be found then on the bench or in the clubhouse, sometimes with his hair flopped over his forehead, having pitched splendidly or not, it being time to go home again. He became the rare clubhouse leader among pitchers, for those who play every fifth day do not often speak for the rest or establish an ethic for all. They strained to live to his standards, drawn from when he was eight or nine, when he first became aware of this thing called the World Series, and then when one day in the future when that became all he ever wanted.
With a fastball for a strike to Albert Almora Jr., an at-bat that concluded with a curveball for strike three, he began the final innings toward that. He struck out five in his six innings. Kris Bryant hit a fastball over the left-field wall in the fourth, when the entire goal had become just nothing crazy. After the sixth inning, when he’d thrown just 89 pitches and there was no need for more, Kershaw sat on the bench with his hair flopped over his forehead and got a hug from his manager, Dave Roberts.
“I told him … he’s done everything he can individually on a baseball field,” Roberts said. “But the one thing that he’s missing is a championship. So he’s very emotional tonight. He’s earned that.”
It was enough. It was plenty. The other 24 could take it from here.
“To get to be on the mound tonight and get to be going to the World Series on the same night, it’s a special thing,” Kershaw said. “Who knows how many times I’m going to get to go to the World Series? I know more than anybody how hard it is to get there.”
By then, young Charley was ready to go, as he was making it clear. The day had run long. Their eyes stung. They’d made a mess of a tiny underground room beneath the box seats. Tommy Lasorda, who’d engineered that last run when Clayton was but seven months old, stood away from the chaos and grinned as the fellas had drunk from a really unsanitary trophy. One by one their names had been called, chanted by the group, and every player tilted back his head and opened his mouth and drank whatever funneled toward their faces. The co-MVPs, Justin Turner and Chris Taylor, neither much until they put on this very uniform, had stomped around together. Yasiel Puig was a part of every bit of it, not over the top, not off somewhere else, but square in the middle, their right fielder, on Thursday night their cleanup hitter.
This, sometimes, if you’re not beaten by it, is where failure leads.
“Winning the World Series is really all that we play this game for,” Kershaw said. “All the individual stuff is great. But at the end of the day I just want to win a World Series.”
He’ll get the ball on Tuesday for Game 1.