Clayton Kershaw can bury all of it in this one moment. All the disappointment. All the criticism. Seldom have the Dodgers needed him more than they do at this moment. Even better, right?
If there are ghosts to be vanquished, let’s vanquish all of ‘em at once, and Kershaw may never have a better opportunity to rewrite a complicated postseason legacy than when he gets the ball in Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday.
All he has to do is take back control of a Fall Classic that got away from the Dodgers in Game 4 on Saturday when the Rays rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to win a stomach-churning masterpiece, 8-7.
The Dodgers are reminded almost daily that they haven’t won a World Series since 1988, and on Saturday, they were one out from taking a 3-1 lead when things came undone. If any single defeat can linger in the hearts and minds, this is one of those.
Kershaw’s task is to stop whatever momentum the Rays have. If he does that, this might just be the game in which the planets line up for a defining postseason moment befitting one of his generation’s greatest players.
Speaking to reporters before Saturday’s game, Kershaw acknowledged how difficult it was not to think about how important the next few days are to the Dodgers -- and to him.
“It’s not easy when you’ve been working so long and so hard for one goal,” he said. “When it’s getting closer and closer with each win, it’s hard to not think about the endgame and what that might be like. But you just have to.
“For me at least, it’s just a constant focus on the next day, the next game, the next pitch. You just have to remind yourself. You have to really discipline yourself to do it.”
Kershaw has meant too much to his sport and the Dodgers to leave this one box unchecked. No one has been more accountable through all the years of postseason disappointment. Never once did he duck accountability. Never once did he utter a word of complaint about the criticism.
He has never been cast completely fairly in these postseason successes and failures. Some seasons, his regular-season workload was monumentally heavy, leaving little in the tank for the playoffs.
But it’s a bottom-line business, and Kershaw’s 4.22 postseason ERA is almost two runs higher than his 2.43 regular-season ERA. Some of his first-rate postseason performances have been forgotten because the Dodgers were never able to finish the deal.
He opened this postseason with an eight-inning shutout of the Brewers and did the same in 2018 against the Braves. In both 2016 and 2018, he was summoned from the bullpen to get the final outs of series-clinching victories.
There were other games in which he did not perform the way an eight-time NL All-Star and three-time NL Cy Young Award winner is expected to perform.
However, in every one of those postseason appearances prior to 2020, he was used either in relief or on short rest -- or both. This season has been different. With a deeper pitching staff around him and baseball’s best lineup providing a cushion, Kershaw is 3-1 with a 2.88 ERA in four starts.
He got the Dodgers going in Game 1 of the World Series last week by allowing the Rays one earned run in a six-inning, eight-strikeout outing. Those eight strikeouts gave him 201 for his postseason career, four shy of Justin Verlander, the all-time leader.
Some perspective: In 13 seasons, Kershaw long ago punched his ticket to Cooperstown. In seven seasons between 2011 and 2017, he was 118-41 with a 2.10 ERA for the Dodgers. He averaged 207 innings a season and finished in the top three of NL Cy Young voting in six of those seven years.
Now, he’ll attempt to win the biggest game of his life in a Fall Classic that has been an absolute joy to watch amid an avalanche of 100 mph fastballs, home runs and wild games.
Ask anyone who has played with Kershaw, managed him, coached him or befriended him, and they’ll tell the same thing. That he has prepared relentlessly for this moment.
And this is his biggest one yet.