LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers' decision to use Clayton Kershaw on short rest Tuesday in Game 4 of the National League Division Series could be seen as an unusual move. But more than that, it was the conventional move, the completely conventional move.
It worked in the short term for Kershaw and the Dodgers in their 6-5 triumph over the Nationals, which evened the NLDS at 2-2 and forced a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on FS1) in Washington.
Kershaw, pitching on three days' rest, was much better than his line indicated. He took a 5-2 lead into the seventh inning, but with two outs, loaded the bases. Dodger relievers allowed all three inherited baserunners to score, so Kershaw was charged with five runs in 6 2/3 innings. But he also struck out 11 batters and looked very much like himself for long stretches.
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"Kershaw was outstanding," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "That's one of the best performances I've seen, especially on three days' rest."
As infrequently as contemporary pitchers are used on short rest, Kershaw was ready to pitch in this game. He had done this last year, and successfully, in the NLDS against the Mets in a nearly identical circumstance: The Dodgers were trailing the series, 2-1, and Kershaw gave up just one run on three hits over seven innings, walking one and striking out eight to help force a decisive Game 5.
Back here in 2016, the question occurs logically and in good dramatic order: What next?
When the series resumes Thursday at Nationals Park the Dodgers likely will start lefty Rich Hill, who has pitched very well this season but has been bothered by a blister on his pitching hand, and who, himself, would be pitching on only three days' rest. The other potential option is Julio Urías, a southpaw with impressive potential, but a pitcher who is only 20 years old.
"We didn't use Julio [in Game 4], so it's going to be a collection of arms," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "I think that we talked about Rich as an option, obviously. But so is Julio and how we want to strategize to win Game 5, we're going to talk through it. But it's nice now that we didn't have to go to Julio, so he's certainly an option."
On the other side, the Nats will have their ace, Max Scherzer, for Game 5. Scherzer will not only be pitching on full rest, he will have an extra day of rest, which, at this point in the baseball calendar, cannot hurt. Scherzer took the loss in Game 1 of this series, but he is a genuine ace. Everything else being equal, you would take him against the Dodgers likely starter, particularly at home, especially in a game of this importance.
"You're never really comfortable until the game is over, but we do have Max," Baker said. "They hit him pretty hard early in [Game 1].
"We have Max and we have our home fans, the way they had their home fans here. That's why you play hard for the home-field advantage. You know, this year, it's coming to fruition."
The Dodgers, meanwhile, will try to patch some pitching together for Game 5. They certainly can't be dismissed out of hand in this endeavor. They came into Game 4 needing two victories to win the series. But they also knew that without a Game 4 victory, there wasn't going to be a Game 5. That notion pointed toward using their ace in Game 4.
"That was a thought," Roberts said. "You can never go wrong with putting the baseball in [Kershaw's] hands. But the state of our 'pen after [Game 3] played a factor, as well. And trusting Clayton giving us a very good chance to win the game today, and also going deep into another game, played a factor, as well."
The outside-the-box move here would have been to go with Urias in Game 4 and save Kershaw for the hoped-for Game 5. The sample size is relatively small, but Urias was 3-0 with a 3.05 ERA at home this season, and 2-2 with a 3.72 ERA on the road. It stands to reason that a young pitcher would be more comfortable making a start of this magnitude at home.
But Kershaw was certainly closer to a sure thing for Game 4. And when Roberts was forced to use all of his relief pitchers in Game 3, the decision was pushed even further toward Kershaw.
Based on what happened in Game 4, it was a correct decision, even if everything didn't work out to perfection. The Dodgers won a chance to advance to the NL Championship Series. But the Nationals will be the team with the ace pitching in that game.