LOS ANGELES – Well, now everybody gets three days' rest.
In a quiet corridor outside the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse late Monday, Sandy Koufax stood quietly, as he would, because Sandy Koufax has spent the better part of a lifetime doing everything quietly except pitch. In a place where the preferred ceremonial libation was cheap and generally cannonballed, he sipped his from a wine glass, like a chaperone who'd calmly lost control of the joint.
He'd greeted Clayton Kershaw earlier, when the whole mob went by in celebration of Juan Uribe's home run, and of beating the Atlanta Braves (by a 4-3 score), and of heading off to the National League Championship Series. It's not his style exactly to be part of this, because he wouldn't presume to share in what they'd done, but he seems to like these boys.
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Kershaw adores him. And the fact he is also left-handed and very good and wearing a uniform that's hardly changed a stitch since when Koufax wore it has led to predictable conclusions that make Kershaw uncomfortable. The time is different and so is the game and the men who play it, and every man is his own, even if the job requirements are the same.
"He's the first Clayton Kershaw," Koufax said. "He doesn't deserve to be compared to anybody. He is who he is and he's great."
And then we all ran off to compare him to Koufax.
In the end, or the only end we could know of with the ice pack melting on his shoulder and the NLCS secure, Kershaw had neither risen to the skies nor burst into a cloud of feathers. Pitching for the first time with three days between starts, he was the same pitcher of force and precision, other than being afforded a scant six innings and 91 pitches.
There'd been conversation. Some was justifiable: Is this the right decision for the 25-year-old left-hander in the long run? Some was wild and sinister: Is this a panic play by a manager desperate to keep his job?
Kershaw would be excellent. He'd allow a pair of unearned runs and that was all. As a teammate said of him late Monday afternoon, "This guy's a different kind of animal," and he was, as it turned out, both effective and unaffected. The same guy.
"Once the game started," Kershaw would say, "it felt the same."
By the time the prattle ran thin and Game 4 of the division series played out, however, an entire day spent discussing not if the Dodgers would beat the Braves but how they would, had nearly slipped away. Kershaw had left a 2-2 tie after six innings and the Dodgers' bullpen had immediately surrendered a run. Awaiting, a flight to Atlanta and two days to decide if Don Mattingly would survive the big play – Kershaw on short rest – that failed. The season would rest with Zack Greinke and a win in Atlanta, where the Braves had run up the best home record in the game.
The Dodgers had played like they'd felt the pressure of Kershaw's start, three days' rest having shimmied from the norm in Koufax's day to heroism in Kershaw's. Steve Garvey, the former Dodger, had taken the stadium microphone pregame and against all protocol had shouted, "Welcome to the final game of the 2013 NLDS!"
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Everybody cheered at a remark that was at best indelicate, given the Braves were standing … right … there. But there it was. And then Freddy Garcia, the ancient Venezuelan who'd made more minor-league starts than major-league ones this summer, pitched with great cleverness. He allowed a pair of solo home runs to Carl Crawford over six innings. And Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez turned a double-play ball into disaster and those two runs. And the bullpen couldn't hold the tie.
This was the thing about Kershaw and this start that had sent so many running toward the doomsday scenarios, both for Kershaw and the Dodgers: The Dodgers would have to win for any of it to matter. They'd still have to play well around the plan.
Two nights before, Kershaw had been to dinner at a Hollywood restaurant with his catcher, A.J. Ellis, and they'd both had the notion that Game 4 would be Kershaw's. (As it was, the Dodgers didn't announce the change – Kershaw instead of Ricky Nolasco – until six hours before the first pitch.)
"You want this," Ellis told him.
Kershaw looked up and nodded.
It was about chasing something. And making a difference. Being that guy. Hell, it was about winning the damn series.
By Monday afternoon the television folks were debating such a radical decision, and Kershaw caught some of it. They said it wasn't worth this. They said it looked and felt desperate. They said it was a move for the World Series, not two rounds before. And maybe it was. Maybe this was a desperate move by a desperate organization, one that risked a rare talent when, no matter the outcome Monday in L.A., there could still be a Wednesday in Atlanta.
Kershaw looked up and smirked.
"I could tell this was a challenge he wanted to meet," Ellis said. "There's only certain guys you ask to pitch on three days' rest, putting their careers on the line for their team. And he's so much above self. This was about us. About his teammates."
Before Ellis could launch his mask into the sky, before they could all run around on the Dodger Stadium infield, before they could rip each other's jerseys off and be toasted by Koufax, before they could thank Kershaw the way they should have, they'd need a hit or two. In the eighth inning, with none out, Yasiel Puig doubled against Braves reliever David Carpenter. Juan Uribe was ordered to bunt Puig to third base, the conservative play. Carpenter threw a slider, which Uribe fouled. He threw a fastball, which Uribe fouled. After ball one and ball two, Carpenter threw a slider. Overthrew it, actually, because it did not break.
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Craig Kimbrel, the best ninth-inning man in baseball, waited in the Braves' bullpen. The plan was to have Carpenter get two outs. Kimbrel would get the third and then three more in the ninth. The Braves would tie the series, return to Atlanta, and the last game of the 2013 NLDS would not have been played here at all.
So Kimbrel watched, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez watched, as Uribe swung. "Way down the line …," Vin Scully said from his booth behind home plate. That hanging slider landed in the seats next to the Dodgers' bullpen. "… and gone!" Scully said. The old ballpark shook. "Isn't it amazing," Scully observed with gaiety and disbelief, "what somebody will do when he can't bunt."
Knocked around pretty good in his third year doing this and working without a guarantee for next season, Mattingly followed that ball like everyone else.
"So," he said, "instant kind of craziness. I'm thinking the playoffs are so stupid, aren't they? Just crazy. That's what I'm thinking about."
Not long after, when three Braves in a row – Jordan Schafer, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton – had struck out in the ninth, Kershaw came upon Koufax. The guy spent the better part of a career pitching on three days rest. He'd made 25 starts on two, 11 on one. He gave his arm to it. His career.
"To get a hug and get a 'good job' from a guy like that," Kershaw said, "from a guy that's been there, from a guy that's done this before and was the best at it for a long time is pretty special."
Koufax took a sip from his glass. Times change. Maybe men don't.
"It's fitting," he said, "that Clayton's out there."