HOUSTON -- When the 6-2 win in Game 4 of the World Series was over Saturday night, the Dodgers shook hands. And then the guy with the beard, flowing hair and the blue hoodie jogged away from the crowd of teammates and had a moment alone on the mound. Clayton Kershaw stood there in his pre-pitch stance and peered at the plate and then at the basepaths before retreating with his team back to the winning clubhouse.
While Game 4 of this World Series had just ended, Game 5 had unofficially begun.
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With the Dodgers and Astros knotted up at two wins apiece in the best-of-seven World Series, it will be Kershaw vs. Dallas Keuchel in this significant swing game Sunday night at Minute Maid Park. It's essentially a best-of-three Fall Classic at this point, and Kershaw ensured his readiness for the real thing with that brief acquaintance in fairly unfamiliar territory.
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"Just checking it out," he said afterward. "I do that every time when it's a place I haven't pitched in a while."
Kershaw has a handful of starts in this building (though none since 2015), but his familiarity with the field is obviously nowhere near that of Keuchel, whose career ERA at home (2.94) in 81 appearances is nearly 1.5 runs better than his ERA on the road (4.43) in 77 games.
Baseball might be an increasingly bullpen-oriented game on the October stage, but this matchup of Cy Young Award winners (Keuchel in 2015, Kershaw in 2011, '13, '14) is certainly special given the stakes and, pointedly, given the Astros' struggles to get the final outs with the relievers they trusted so routinely during the regular season.
For the first time all October, Houston is coming off a home loss, as the struggles of Ken Giles and Joe Musgrove in the ninth inning allowed their opponent to put up a five-spot in Game 4. The Dodgers swiped that win, and it remains to be seen if they've swiped the Astros' Minute Maid Park mojo along with it in advance of Houston's final home game.
The Astros know they have a tough task ahead in their reunion with Kershaw, who limited them to one run on three hits with no walks and 11 strikeouts in Game 1, but you might not be surprised to hear they're up for the challenge.
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"He's a veteran guy," said third baseman Alex Bregman, who homered off Kershaw in Game 1. "He attacks hitters, and we're going to have to be ready to go. He's tough. He's one of, if not the best in the game. But we've got one of the best in the game going, too, in Dallas Keuchel. So it's going to be just as fun of a game as Game 1.
"We're ready. We're going to go up there, take the fight to him, go toe to toe and see who wins."
The Kershaw-Keuchel rematch will also mark the first time since the 2010 World Series -- the Rangers' Cliff Lee and Giants' Timothy Lincecum in Games 1 and 5 -- when former Cy Young Award winners faced off twice in the same Fall Classic. Lincecum got the win both times, helping the Giants clinch their first World Series in 56 years. Kershaw got the best of Keuchel in Game 1, and he'll certainly be adding to his Hall of Fame resume if he can do it again.
The Dodgers are supremely confident that they're going to be able to ride their generational pitcher to the cusp of their first crown since 1988, and that confidence is understood given the "masterpiece," as teammate Brandon McCarthy called it, Kershaw pitched in Game 1.
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As for Kershaw himself, he'll hope to keep the ball in the ballpark, as all eight runs he has allowed this October have come via the long ball. But keeping the ball in Minute Maid Park, given the 315-foot distance down the left-field line to the Crawford Boxes, isn't always easy.
"It's just a matter of making good pitches to these guys," Kershaw said. "Most of the time, I would say it doesn't come into play that much. I feel the homers I give up are pretty legit. As long as you're making your pitches, you might hit one off the wall that you're not supposed to or something, but other than that, you can't really change."
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Keuchel, meanwhile, is hoping to change his results from Game 1, in which he was burned by two mistakes -- homers he allowed to Chris Taylor (who ambushed him on the first pitch of the game) and the go-ahead two-run shot he surrendered to Justin Turner in the sixth.
"I just didn't feel like the finish on my pitches was right, and that happens," Keuchel said. "Through the course of the whole season, if you get 34 starts, I think a lot of the better pitchers would say you only feel at your best a handful of times. And the in-between those handful of times is where you really establish how good you are.
"Physically, I felt great. The only thing that bothered me was the sun, it was literally in my face in the bullpen. I had never been at Dodger Stadium for a 5 p.m. game before. Couldn't even see [catcher Brian] McCann or the plate warming up. It was kind of a feel warmup, and obviously when I got to the mound, that was when the fun started."
The sun obviously won't be a factor indoors at Minute Maid Park, but the Astros will have plenty of fun if they can amp up the home crowd early. Leadoff man George Springer, who has more hard-hit balls than anybody in this Series with 11, per Statcast™, is their offensive igniter, and they need to ride him. They also need to find somebody to step up and get the final outs if Keuchel can't go the distance and they're able to take a lead into the late innings.
"It's Game 5 of the World Series coming up," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, "so I think there won't be any need to press any buttons or let them know how big these outs are. But we've got to get to 27 outs, and we're going to keep trying to piece it together."
Since 1946, when the current 2-3-2 World Series format became permanent, teams on the road for Game 5 in a 2-2 Series (and therefore with home-field advantage for Games 6-7) have gone on to win 18 of 30 series. Ten of the past 12 Game 5 road teams have won the series, going back to 1982 -- most recently the 2013 Red Sox and '11 Cardinals. The exceptions are the 2014 Royals (vs. the Giants) and '03 Yankees (vs. the Marlins).
That's good historical precedent for Kershaw, but he's happy to just rely on his own work. And shortly after Game 4 ended, he was there on that mound, getting ready to punch in.