CHICAGO -- Clayton Kershaw could not move. He turned to his right, slamming into a wall of teammates and a shower of beer. He turned to his left. More of the same. Eventually, Kershaw ducked out of the huddle of screaming Dodgers, who had transformed Wrigley Field's weight room into
CHICAGO -- Clayton Kershaw could not move. He turned to his right, slamming into a wall of teammates and a shower of beer. He turned to his left. More of the same. Eventually, Kershaw ducked out of the huddle of screaming Dodgers, who had transformed Wrigley Field's weight room into a fraternity house following their 11-1, pennant-clinching Game 5 win over the Cubs on Thursday in the National League Championship Series presented by Camping World.
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Kershaw's T-shirt was plastered to his back. His hair covered his eyes, which bore no goggles. Finally free from his constraints, Kershaw whipped his head upward, champagne, beer and sweat spraying off him in all directions.
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"This is incredible," Kershaw rasped, his voice straining from both overuse and emotion after his six-inning gem in the clinching win. "Even before I got drafted, just when you're a little kid, you want to play in the World Series. It's all you ever dream about. I never thought in a million years I'd get to say that, that I'm going to go play in the World Series."
Six previous times, Kershaw had lugged less talented teams into October, only to come up shy of his goal. The second-longest tenured Dodger behind Andre Ethier, Kershaw pitched for multiple ownership groups, multiple front-office regimes and a trio of managers. He won three NL Cy Young Awards and an NL MVP Award.
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All along, Kershaw said, he heard whispers of "1988, 1988," a reference to the Dodgers' most recent title and pennant. Kershaw, the franchise's anointed savior, was born that year. It was symbolic, or preordained, or destiny or something. Kershaw, the first-round Draft pick, the wunderkind, had arrived to erase two-plus decades' worth of ills.
Yet throughout the first act of his career, Kershaw's October flatness contradicted his work from April through September. This generation's most accomplished pitcher came to Chicago dragging a 5-7 career postseason record and a 4.57 ERA. His surprise two-out save in last year's NL Division Series clincher notwithstanding, Kershaw was regarded as much a part of the Dodgers' playoff disappointments as he was the engine driving them to those opportunities.
Asked about Kershaw's reputation before Game 5, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein cut off the question.
"I remember for years, everyone said Barry Bonds couldn't perform in the postseason," Epstein said. "And then guess what? He went ballistic. So it's a small sample and matter of time."
Kershaw's time perhaps arrived last October, when he demanded the baseball in a save situation to topple the Nationals in the NLDS. But he subsequently lost a decisive NLCS Game 6 at Wrigley. The whispers grew louder, more incessant: "1988, 1988."
Returning to that same mound Thursday, Kershaw struck out the first batter he faced on a trademark diving curveball, then uncorked his swiftest pitch of the season, a 96.2-mph fastball. The whispers faded. Kershaw did not allow a hit until Kristopher Bryant homered with one out in the fourth. By that point, it was 9-1.
Two innings later, Kershaw walked off the mound into the dugout, where Dodgers manager Dave Roberts awaited. Not wanting to extend his ace past 89 pitches in a blowout, Roberts opened his arms for a hug. Both men were already considering World Series Game 1, which Kershaw will start Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.
"You knew he wasn't going to be denied," Roberts said.
Even so, things are different now. The Dodgers, who won 104 games despite a back injury costing Kershaw six weeks, may be less reliant on their ace than ever. Leaning on baseball's deepest rotation during the regular season, the Dodgers subsequently rode one of the game's best bullpens to the pennant. Given the liberty to be less than perfect, Kershaw posted his highest ERA in a half-decade, which was still good enough to lead the league.
He didn't care all that much. He never has. All Kershaw ever wanted was a pennant and a title and all the trappings therein. He wanted to stand in the middle of a mob of teammates, clutching the NL championship trophy in his left hand.
After doing so late Thursday night, Kershaw ducked back out to a mostly abandoned playing field. As Wrigley Field workers loaded catering equipment and beer kegs into storage, Kershaw wandered back onto the field with his 2-year-old daughter, Cali, trotting along, and his infant son, Charley, in tow. Kershaw's wife took photos as Cali posed on the mound, where not two hours earlier this generation's best pitcher pushed the only team he has ever known onto the grandest stage it has seen in decades.
"I couldn't imagine being part of something this great," Kershaw said. "Other than getting married and having kids, it's right up there with all the best moments of my life."
Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo and Facebook.