LOS ANGELES — In the very last moments, when the season could continue for the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers, when there were six outs to get and at least that many options to get them, their manager, Dave Roberts, may have fallen in love with the name. He may have fallen in love with what the name represents, what it once was, where it will be etched one day. He may have fallen in love with the name across the backs of all those people in the Dodger Stadium bleachers, where the home runs landed Wednesday night. He may have fallen in love with the character of the man who carries that name and the commitment by which he conducts himself as a ballplayer, as a leader and as the guy they all wanted to win for, a group that includes Dave Roberts.
In the very last moments for these Dodgers, three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, pitching in relief, allowed the two eighth-inning home runs -- on consecutive pitches -- that tied the score of a game the Dodgers had led for seven innings, that sent the fifth game of the National League Division Series into the ninth inning, then a 10th, where the Washington Nationals finished them. The final score was Nationals 7, Dodgers 3 -- Howie Kendrick hit a grand slam off Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly in the 10th, deadening a full Dodger Stadium that had hosted World Series games the past two Octobers.
And, yet, the scores that would linger were Dodgers 3, Nationals 1, when Kershaw entered the game in the seventh, struck out Adam Eaton with two runners on base and then inexplicably returned to in the eighth. And, then, Nationals 3, Dodgers 3, the score after three pitches in the eighth, after Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto had brought the Nationals back to life with long home runs.
“Everything people say is true right now about the postseason, I understand that,” Kershaw said of his own shadowy postseason reputation. His playoff ERA rose to 4.43, in a remarkable career that also is burdened by pitches, and some entire outings, not to his standard.
“Nothing I can do about it right now,” he continued. “It’s a terrible feeling. It really is. But I’m not going to hang my head. I’m going to be here next year, try and do the same thing, hopefully try and do it every single year.”
He’d sat on the bench, elbows on his knees, a too familiar October sight in Los Angeles. He’d taken the ball because he always has, because this is his team more than anyone else’s, because there were outs to get and someone had to get them and he is Clayton Kershaw. Then he watched as his teammates failed to score, failed to release him from those two sliders. They hadn’t scored since the second inning and wouldn’t again, which is about how it looked when he’d returned for the eighth inning, ahead of any right-hander against Rendon, who had 11 hits in 29 at-bats against Kershaw. And how it looked when, one pitch later, he grooved a straight slider to Soto, hitless in five at-bats against him, and also hitless in three at-bats against Dodger situational lefty Adam Kolarek, on the roster for this very purpose.
“It’s just a terrible feeling,” Kershaw said. “I had one job to do, is to get three outs. And got one out. And didn’t get the other two. And it cost us the game right there. So, uh, that’s a terrible feeling. There’s no excuses. Just didn’t make pitches and a guy hit it over the fence. Twice.”
At his locker later, Kershaw was visited by a staff member. Kershaw did not stand up. He accepted a hug, then fairly melted into the man’s arms, laying his head on the man’s shoulder. It mattered not that he’d been left in an untenable situation, that the issues of past Octobers remained, that only three years ago he’d closed a game just like this one in Washington D.C., that closer Kenley Jansen wasn’t yet warm and couldn’t be allowed to pitch past the Nationals’ two best hitters, that with a two-run lead in the eighth inning of the first game the Dodgers had to win since Game 5 of the last World Series, the only apparent option was Kershaw. He said it was his to bear, again. His to remember. His to carry, for how long he couldn’t say.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve had to do it so much that, I don’t know. It might linger for a while. I might not get over it, I don’t know. But, spring training’s going to come. I’m going to have to be ready to pitch.”
The Nationals hollered and laughed and packed for St. Louis, where beginning Friday they will play the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. They’d won their first postseason series since they were Montreal Expos. They’d won against somebody else’s bullpen, and they would love that irony, given the bullpen they’d lugged across 162 games and a division series. And, even then, near the end, their hope could only be for a fatal mistake, the sort of decision by someone else that would change their own vacant history.
The Dodgers, Roberts, pushed Walker Buehler through a career-high 117 pitches. They got him two outs into the seventh and to that 3-1 lead. Of the 27 outs they’d require, assuming the lead held, Buehler got them 20. Kershaw got the 21st, the stirring strikeout of Eaton that had Kershaw arrive back at his dugout with a bellow. The options for Rendon and Soto to start the eighth were Kenta Maeda, throwing better than anyone in the bullpen. Or, perhaps, Joe Kelly for Rendon and Kolarek for Soto. Or, Jansen for Rendon, Kolarek for Soto and Maeda through the ninth. Jansen, clearly, was not viewed as the same reliever he’d been in recent Octobers.
Or, Kershaw across Rendon and Soto. Followed by, presumably, Maeda, who instead followed Kershaw and struck out the next three batters, none of whom were Rendon or Soto. The bullpen that could not be trusted to protect a two-run lead in the eighth inning, then, surely had little chance to survive long in a tied game, and in the 10th, Kelly, in his second inning, loaded the bases then threw a fastball to Kendrick, who ended the series.
“It's about, he's one of the best pitchers in the game and for him to go out there and throw four pitches and to go back out there and get two hitters, I felt really good about that,” Roberts said of Kershaw. “So it's more of, I don't think it was an analytic question. It's a guy that I believe in, and I trust and it didn't work out.
“He's a pro. He's probably the best pitcher of our generation. For him to make himself available tonight and got us out of a big spot right there and it just didn't work out. So there's always going to be second-guessing when things don't work out, but I'll take my chances any day on Clayton, and it just didn't work out right there.”
Roberts said his plan was to keep the right-handed Maeda away from the left-handed-hitting Soto. He also, clearly, did not wish to burn Maeda on one batter, that being Rendon, leaving five outs without Maeda. The logic led him to Kershaw and, eventually, the end of the season, followed by hard questions. He is a good manager. The bullpen is his to run, unless it is not. The decision left two baseballs in the bleachers that put the season on the brink, followed by a third that kicked it over the edge. Some days, the assessment of the job depends entirely on the result. This was one of those days.
“Sure,” Roberts said. “I mean, if the blame falls on me, I've got no problem with it. I feel that my job is to put guys in the best position to have success and if it doesn't work out, there's always going to be second-guessing, and I got no problem wearing the brunt of that. That's okay.”
In his clubhouse, grown men wiped away tears. They’d expected so much more of themselves. And for a third consecutive October somebody else had celebrated on their field. The Dodgers would not defend their National League title. They would not defend their 106 victories. They would simply put a hand on Clayton Kershaw’s shoulder, give him a nod, remind him that he is so much of who they are, in the good and the unfathomable.
“He means so much for everybody in this locker room,” said Rich Hill, his eyes reddening by the word. “That’s the tough part. People say it’s just a game. It’s a lot more than that.”
More than a name, of course. But he got his out, got his man, did his part. It was someone else’s turn to pitch.
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