CHICAGO – Along comes Clayton Kershaw.
Along comes that start.
Along comes the reason he works the way he does, and cares the way he does, and fights everything including, sometimes, himself. All of it, every day, maybe for as long as he can remember, for a win, for a win Thursday night, for the World Series.
Last seen Wednesday night, he was standing in a hallway at the bottom of a stairwell that leads to the visitors’ clubhouse. The ceilings are low, the lighting is dimly yellow, the walls are narrow. Some 20 minutes after the Los Angeles Dodgers had lost Game 4 of the National League Championship Series 3-2 Wednesday night, in essence passing the ball to him, he cast a soft countenance. He held his baby boy, Charley, in his arms. Charley’s hair was mussed and his eyes were a bit wobbly.
“Sleep,” Kershaw said with a smile at his son. “Needs some sleeeep.”
With that he turned, and Charley lay his head on his father’s shoulder. Tomorrow would be some kind of day. Wrigley Field will be full. For two days the wind had blown over the top of the stadium, through the gaps in the old place, across the bleachers and out toward where the baseballs sometimes land, where games sometimes change. Seasons, even.
He is 29 years old. Depending on how one parses these things, he’s the pitcher of this generation. He pitches for the franchise that has for long enough been short – sometimes just short – of something great. Occasionally, it’s been him. He is fond of reminding folks how difficult the game can be, and is wary of those who can’t fathom the time and place element of a few imperfect pitches when the air gets thick. He is humble enough to understand he’s not above it, that he can’t be and neither can anyone else, though proud and stubborn enough to try to be. See, when his team has required it, he’s pitched with short rest and even almost no rest. He’s pitched past his limit in order to cover for frailties in bullpens, and there’s been plenty of those over the years. He spends all those danged afternoons alone in outfields all over the country because then, when he walks off a mound, whether it’s been perfect or not, he will know he’s earned it. He will promise the work and live with the result, whatever the result, because he’d given so much of himself for it.
So, yes, his career postseason ERA is nearly twice that of his regular-season ERA. Yes, there’ve been wonderful starts, when the world stops and watches Clayton Kershaw do what he does. Yes, sometimes he’s been hit, and those games are a part of it too. Not two weeks ago he gave up four home runs in a division series game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Dodgers won the game, going away. Five days ago, he pitched five innings against the Cubs and the Dodgers won the game.
“Yeah,” he’d said earlier in the postseason, “people talk about all the postseason failures that I’ve had a lot, and I understand that. I don’t really look at it like that, though, which is, I guess, a good thing for me. But I think I look at the times – I’ve had success at times, too, and I try to marinate on those. … It just so happens a lot of the years we’ve lost I’ve been pitching on that night, so I’m going to try not to do that this year.”
Along comes that day again. The Dodgers get another chance to finish the Cubs. The Cubs get another chance to win a game, to push their season out one or two more days, to see if they can’t root around for another something special, now that the Dodgers have lost for the first time this month.
And along comes Clayton Kershaw, back in that arena he loves so much and respects and has learned to live with.
On Wednesday, he’d grinned and said of Game 4, “Yeah, it’s a tough spot for me just because I have to prepare to start tomorrow. I can’t assume we’re going to win and then it just so happens I have to pitch. I have to expect to pitch and then be surprised when we win. It’s a tough spot because obviously I believe in our team and I believe we can win tonight. But I can’t let myself mentally go there. But hopefully, yeah, hopefully it doesn’t work out and I don’t have to pitch.”
“But, we’ll see,” he said.
So, he’d find his way through the streets of Chicago, alive again with hope. A little hope. And he’d put his boy to bed. And he’d show up before he’d know it with a chance to pitch his team into the World Series, and he’d pitch because the Dodgers need to win, or will soon enough if they don’t, and not because he needed to justify anything about himself. That’s already been done. That’s what all those lonely afternoons were about, and they’ve been plenty good enough so far.