Clayton Kershaw had just turned in a narrative-busting gem, so the Los Angeles Dodgers ace was a little perturbed when the first question he fielded in his postgame media session was if he thought Javier Baez’s seventh-inning flyout was going to sail over the center field ivy for a home run.
“That’s your first freakin’ question?” Kershaw bristled.
“Yeah, I did. I thought it was out, for sure. He hit it pretty good.”
It wasn’t an unfair question — the exit velocity on Baez’s warning track flyout to center was 103 miles per hour, making it the Cubs’ hardest-hit ball of the game — but Kershaw wasn’t interested in entertaining it after his seven shutout innings shoveled more dirt on the “Kershaw can’t pitch well in the postseason” storyline.
Showing no ill effects of starting against the Washington Nationals on three days’ rest in Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Tuesday and getting the final two outs of Game 5 Thursday, Kershaw plowed through the Cubs’ order using mostly fastballs and sliders without a good feel for his signature looping curveball. He didn’t go to a three-ball count until facing Dexter Fowler with one out in the sixth inning and got Jason Heyward to pop out to end the fifth, the only at-bat a Cubs player had Sunday with a runner in scoring position.
Kershaw threw 84 pitches (50 fastballs, 23 sliders and nine curveballs, according to BrooksBaseball.net) and held the Cubs to two hits with one walk and six strikeouts. That walk, though, came on four pitches to Anthony Rizzo to lead off the seventh — an inning in which, in his playoff career, Kershaw entered Sunday with a 28.93 ERA.
But Kershaw struck out Ben Zobrist on a fastball — the Cubs’ left fielder “took one down the middle, thankfully,” Kershaw said — and got in on Addison Russell’s hands for a flyout before Baez came within a few feet of finding the center field basket for what would’ve been a go-ahead home run.
Before Baez stepped in, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts came out to talk to Kershaw with the initial intention of pulling him from the game for closer Kenley Jansen, who would’ve been tasked with a seven-out save. But Kershaw convinced his manager to leave him in, and despite the gasps as soon as Baez made contact with a 93 mile per hour 0-1 fastball, the move paid off.
“There was no way he was going to come out of the game not getting that out,” catcher Yasmani Grandal said.
Kershaw said part of his thought process in convincing Roberts to let him stay in the game was to give Jansen — who threw 51 pitches Thursday in Washington — less of a workload, but: “Mainly I thought I could get him out, and came really close to not doing it,” Kershaw said.
The Cubs are now faced with the looming specter of Kershaw pitching in a clinching game, be it as early as Game 5 in Los Angeles (which would again be on three days’ rest) or a potential Game 6 in Chicago (on five days’ rest). For a franchise looking to eradicate a narrative of its own, that’s an unsettling prospect as the series shifts to southern California tied at one.
“He's the best pitcher on the planet,” Roberts said. “I’ll take him any day, as well as 29 other managers. And so for me, the history, it has no bearing on anything for me. This is a new year, and he's shown what he can do in the postseason.”