WASHINGTON -- Slowly, methodically, Clayton Kershaw emerged from the Dodgers dugout following the eighth inning of National League Division Series Game 5 on Thursday night. He walked. He did not jog. He took his time, the hood of his sweatshirt bobbing up and down.
This was not the plan; no, Kershaw found manager Dave Roberts in the seventh inning of the Dodgers' 4-3 win over the Nationals, which sent them to the National League Championship Series (Game 1 Saturday at Cubs, 5 PT on FS1), and told him he was available to pitch an inning in relief of Kenley Jansen. Roberts found the appropriate members of the training staff and received an all-clear. Then the best regular-season pitcher of his generation began his drumbeat march to the bullpen, keeping his gaze focused dead in front of him.
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"It almost gave me goosebumps," infielder Justin Turner said.
The previous 48 hours had been a clot of discussion about Kershaw's postseason disappointments. He pitched well in NLDS Game 4, but not well enough. After Kershaw departed, the Dodgers stuck three inherited runs onto his line, boosting his career postseason ERA to 4.83. Ever since the Cardinals hung 15 runs on Kershaw during a two-start stretch from 2013-14, he has been trying to shake that reputation: big in the regular season, small in the clutch.
So as Kershaw warmed, the Nationals Park crowd broiled, emboldened by their team's one-out rally against Jansen. Earlier in the evening, Roberts met with Jansen to see if he might be willing to appear in an unorthodox situation, the latest exhibit of baseball's evolving bullpen groupthink. Rather than turn to the underbelly of his bullpen, Roberts brought his closer into the seventh inning to hold a one-run lead, with half a mind to let him record the final nine outs.
Jansen offered what he could, including a four-pitch strikeout of Anthony Rendon to strand the bases loaded in the seventh. But when he walked Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth in the ninth inning, his pitch count climbing over 50, the bullpen door swung open.
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"I wanted Clayton," Roberts said. "And so I felt good about it."
Roberts felt good despite the three-time Cy Young Award winner's inauspicious history against Daniel Murphy, an MVP candidate who came to the plate with the tying run in scoring position. Not only did Murphy knock home four of the runs that Kershaw allowed in Game 4, he also homered twice off him in last year's NLDS for the Mets. Perhaps no left-handed hitter in baseball was better equipped to handle Kershaw.
But Kershaw read his scouting report well, pounding two fastballs up-and-in against Murphy. The second baseman popped up the last of them to siphon off one of Washington's final two outs.
"They were doing everything they could to close that game out," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said.
It's not as if Kershaw had previously shied away from the biggest postseason spots. To the contrary, he consistently asked for the ball on short rest, with mixed results.
Contrast that to rival Madison Bumgarner, an excellent regular-season pitcher who put the Giants on his back in the 2014 postseason, saving World Series Game 7 after winning Games No. 1 and 5. The league's history is full of similar tales. In Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, D-backs pitcher Randy Johnson returned on zero days' rest to retire the final four Yankees. In 1950, Allie Reynolds pitched a 10-inning complete-game victory for the Yankees, then came back two days later to retire the final batter of a four-game sweep.
Before Thursday, a dozen pitchers in history had started a game, rested a spell, then returned on one day's rest to earn a save -- most recently Mark Buehrle in the 2005 World Series. Kershaw just needed one more out to join the club.
He worked inside to Wilmer Difo, throwing a ball and two strikes as a red-towel-waving crowd frothed. Then Kershaw threw his first and only curveball of the night, burying it in the dirt. Difo swung. Catcher Carlos Ruiz threw to first and the Dodgers surrounded Kershaw, centering him in their dogpile.
"At the end of the day, if we don't win that game, we're going home anyway," Kershaw said. "So what does it matter? I just wanted to be available, and it ended up to the point where I could help out tonight."
In a beer-soaked clubhouse, Kershaw grinned and shrugged off history. He spoke about a performance and a game that could change the conversation about him.
Not since the 2009 postseason had Kershaw appeared in a game in relief, though it's not a concept entirely foreign for him. In 2006, the year the Dodgers drafted him, Kershaw recorded three outs in a Gulf Coast Dodgers game for his lone professional save. His catcher that day was Jansen.
Over the next decade, those two developed into the franchise's best starting pitcher and best reliever, sharing in so many successes and too many heartbreaks. Little they did on the field surprised each other, but, after retiring the Nationals in the eighth inning, Jansen noticed Kershaw's slow walk to the bullpen. He shot his neck back around to take another look.
"I'm like, wait a minute, am I dreaming right now?" Jansen said, exhausted on the floor of the visiting clubhouse. "It's an awesome feeling to know the best pitcher in the game has your back."