NLDS Game 5: Clayton Kershaw, the unlikeliest of closers

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·MLB columnist
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WASHINGTON – From the bullpen beyond left field, standing in shin guards, his mask propped on his forehead, sweating from a decent night’s work, Steve Cilladi focused on the figure walking toward him. This, Cilladi concluded, must be the next man up. He knew the walk – head bent forward, eyes a yard or two in front of his feet, a glove in one hand, his other hand curled in a light fist, his gait heavy – the one he’d seen so many dozens of times, only before games. This could only be one guy. Cilladi lowered his mask.

Game 5 of the National League Division Series was headed into its fifth hour. The Washington Nationals played furiously from a run behind. The Los Angeles Dodgers propped their closer, Kenley Jansen, in front of that lead with none out in the seventh inning and the potential tying run at first base. He’d pitched through the heart of the Nationals’ order in the seventh, 21 pitches in all, then passed his manager on the way into the dugout and said, “Don’t take me out, Doc. Don’t take me out. I got this thing.”

Jansen pitched the eighth inning, too. Sixteen more pitches, still holding down a 4-3 lead, still rearing up with his cut fastball, sometimes straining to touch 97 mph, sometimes mustering but 92, always thinking, “Don’t take me out. I got this thing.”

Nationals Park was awash in red. Many of the nearly 44,000 could not be convinced to sit, or to quiet down, or to run for the last Metro out of the Navy Yards. Losers twice here, in the division series, in the past four years, the Nationals were different this time. They were together, and better, and led by a man who knew the way. No, the people would stand and scream and wait on this victory into the fifth hour, wait on this Kenley Jansen to crack, wait on Harper or Werth or Murphy or somebody to crack him.

In the dugout, Clayton Kershaw turned to his pitching coach, Rick Honeycutt.

“Is the plan for Kenley to go three?” he asked.

“Right now,” Honeycutt said, “that’s the plan.”

“I feel good,” Kershaw said.

“Absolutely not,” Honeycutt said. “Absolutely not.”

Kershaw, about the best thing to happen to the Dodgers ever, had thrown 110 pitches two days before, in Los Angeles. And 101 four days before that. He’d done his part. The Dodgers, losers twice here, in the division series, the past two seasons, would win or not with the other 24. They were together, and better, and led by a new man they hoped would know the way.

Kershaw turned away. Honeycutt watched him approach Dave Roberts, who six hours before had been asked if Kershaw could perhaps get a batter or two in Game 5. He said absolutely not.

“I appreciate it,” he told Kershaw. “No way. No way.”

“I feel good,” Kershaw said. “It’s my side day.”

When Honeycutt saw Kershaw again, he – Kershaw – had changed into his spikes. He’d traded his hoodie for a warm-up jacket. Jansen, resting between innings, noticed Kershaw in the tunnel, noticed something different.

“Wait a minute,” he said to himself, “am I dreaming?”

Kershaw left the dugout. Before he did, Roberts told him, “You go down there and throw. If it gets to Murphy, you got him.”

“If you need me,” Kershaw said, “I’ll be ready.”

He walked diagonally, across a corner of left field. The crowd recognized him, knew what might follow, and booed. Cilladi, the bullpen catcher, was up in the catching rotation. He watched Kershaw approach.

“I thought it was a little bit eerie,” he said.

There was nothing urgent in any of it. Not in Kershaw’s stroll across the outfield. Not in his entrance into the bullpen. Not in the way he removed his jacket, or stretched his arms, and torso, and legs. Not in anything he said, because he said nothing, only accepted a baseball and pawed briefly at the mound. Cilladi crouched behind the plate, set up for a fastball on the corner, and Kershaw hit the mitt.

“He may have missed his spot maybe three times as he was getting loose,” Cilladi said. “The ball was just, I don’t know how to explain it. It was hard. Heavy. Like nothing I’d seen.”

Kershaw had made a relief appearance in 2008, his rookie season. Another in 2009. Once, in the minor leagues, he’d registered a save. That was in 2006. Rookie ball. His catcher that day was a young, bulky kid learning the position, name of Kenley Jansen.

Clayton Kershaw
Two days after throwing 110 pitches, Clayton Kershaw got the final out in Game 5 of the NLDS for the Dodgers.

Strange game, Thursday night, bleeding into Friday morning. The Nationals posted a run in the second inning against Dodgers starter Rich Hill, and otherwise put runners on base and failed to score them. They appeared to entrust that one run to their ace, Max Scherzer, who didn’t allow a hit until the fifth inning, and didn’t allow a run until his last pitch, his 99th, which Joc Pederson hit opposite field into the Dodgers’ bullpen. That was the seventh inning, when the Dodgers jumped Scherzer and five Nationals’ relievers for four runs. They led 4-1. Roberts hoped to steal an inning, the bottom of the seventh, with 28-year-old rookie Grant Dayton. Dayton walked his first batter, allowed a pinch-hit home run to Chris Heisey the next batter, and then a single to his third batter. Roberts summoned Jansen for what could be nine outs, but really for however many Jansen was capable. He’d take eight. Or seven. Whatever he had.

“All I gotta do is trust what I did the whole season,” he thought.

The Nationals threatened. Jansen crept past 40 pitches. In the bullpen, Kershaw, by the ninth inning, was warm. He’d throw a pitch, receive the ball from Cilladi, and they’d both stand and watch Jansen’s next pitch. Jansen struck out Trea Turner to start the ninth inning. Two more outs.

“I was not going to quit,” Jansen said. “I’m not going to go out like that. I’m going to go out like a man.”

He walked Bryce Harper on four pitches. He was at 45 pitches. He’d never thrown more than 42 in a game. He walked Jayson Werth, ball four on a 97-mph cutter, all he had left. Daniel Murphy was next. He was 7 for 15 in the series.

Roberts came to the mound. He smiled. From Day One, all Roberts had asked from any of them was give what they had to give. Jansen and Roberts, along with four Dodgers infielders and one Dodgers catcher – Carlos Ruiz – turned and watched the bullpen door open. Kershaw jogged across the outfield grass, 59 steps. He pulled up at shortstop and walked the rest, another 18.

“The best feeling in the world,” Jansen said, “to know the best pitcher in the game has your back.”

By then, early Friday morning had come. The destiny of two franchises waited. One would go to Chicago the next morning. The other would pack for winter. Two runners on. One out. Murphy in October. Kershaw two outs to get.

Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, looked down from his suite.

“I can’t say enough about Kenley,” he’d say later. “He was absolutely incredible. As gutsy a performance as I’ve ever seen. He absolutely left everything on that mound tonight.”

Kershaw threw a handful of warm-up pitches. In the run-up to Game 5 — Rich Hill on three days’ rest — baseball ops had discussed every possible strategy to milk nine innings from its pitching staff, but one.

“We didn’t even talk about it,” Friedman said. “We walked through so many different scenarios. None of them involved Kershaw.”

Indeed, when Kershaw walked to the bullpen an inning before, Friedman said, “I thought it was a decoy.”

Charlie Culberson, the second baseman, stood beside the mound. He watched Kershaw arrive. Murphy being a left-handed hitter, Culberson thought he might ask Kershaw his plan of attack so he could better position himself. He raised an eyebrow at Adrian Gonzalez, who shook his head. Don’t ask. Culberson picked up the rosin bag, patted his bare hand with it, and walked to his place.

Murphy popped to Culberson on the second pitch, a 94-mph fastball. The pitcher’s spot was due up next. After 4½ hours of baseball, Nationals manager Dusty Baker had one position player left. While Jansen paced in the Dodgers’ dugout, rookie Wilmer Difo strung out his at-bat for five pitches, and swung over the top of a 1-and-2 curveball.

Kershaw raised his arms. Soon, he was engulfed by teammates. The game had gone four hours, 32 minutes. The series had gone five games. It had started with Kershaw, paused near the middle with Kershaw, and ended with Kershaw. And they all felt a part. They all were a part. In a quiet stadium, they hooted and hugged on shaky legs.

“It’s a satisfying feeling tonight, no doubt, and we’re going to enjoy it and we’re going to celebrate tonight and we’re going to have a lot of fun doing it,” Kershaw said. “But tomorrow we’re going to Chicago.”

Steve Cilladi was drenched in beer, in Champagne, in whatever could be spilled. He held a bottle in one hand, a plate of food in the other. His eyes shone with what he’d seen, with the memory of the tug of his mitt when he’d sat 60 feet from Kershaw, with the sight of Kershaw walking back across that outfield.

“That,” he said, “was pretty freakin’ cool.”