CHICAGO – They’ve all journeyed as Dave Roberts did late Sunday. Good managers. Strong managers. Decorated managers. Managers who are sure of themselves and, as important, sure of the characters and limitations and insecurities of the men they lead.
They start out from the same place, from the top step of a dugout, amidst tens of thousands who view these journeys as fools’ errands or too long in coming, so they are booed or cheered, sometimes both, because there is no sure thing in what they do, except in that they are sure they are going to do it.
Right up until the end of the journey.
It’s not even a very long journey. A couple dozen yards at the outside. From here to, like, the end of the driveway and back, that length. Even at a ponderous walk, hardly enough time to change one’s mind, hardly enough time to misplace one’s intentions.
And, yet, so often, in fact more often than not, they come back alone, when the whole point of the journey was to come back with Clayton Kershaw.
“I got him,” Kershaw told Dave Roberts late Sunday night, according to Chase Utley, who was standing right there. “I can get him out.”
So, like Joe Torre had, like Don Mattingly had, and now as he does, Roberts nodded his head. He was in the middle of the diamond at Wrigley Field, inside this taut and still trembling National League Championship Series, and looked over his situation. Their situation. Anthony Rizzo at first base. Two outs. Seventh inning. A 1-0 lead in a ballpark that is familiar but not home, a ballpark they all know but are suspicious of. The fences are too close. The wind, the drafts, just what the heck are those flags doing? It’s all too unpredictable.
He looked over at Javy Baez, the 23-year-old from Puerto Rico whose bat had helped clobber the Dodgers the night before and the San Francisco Giants in the series before that. Baez already had singled against Kershaw a couple innings before, when Kershaw tried to lock him up with one of those jumpy curveballs, and Baez lashed it into left-center field, one of only two hits off Kershaw all night. The kid was hot. Maybe it was his time, not theirs, not Kershaw’s, and baseball gets that way sometimes, and in those spirals it’s probably best not to resist.
Had he looked over his right shoulder, he would have seen the guy who throws those 97-mph cutters, his closer, the guy who saved them all from the Washington Nationals on Thursday night, all strong in the legs again and awaiting a wave. Dave Roberts would get to that, you know, once he’d thanked Clayton Kershaw for his effort, for that string of zeroes he’d just dropped on Game 2, for the 82 pitches he’d thrown, all of them mustered when one swing might ruin the whole thing.
And, yet, here he was, his infielders quietly rooting for this to pass as other moments like it have, with other managers in other games at other times conceding that this was not theirs to mess with. The next few pitches, whoever threw them, were as likely than not to win or lose this ballgame. The tens of thousands here believed it. The seven men on the mound knew it. The pitching coach, who’d watched the manager go, probably knew it, too.
“When he left,” Rick Honeycutt said of Roberts, “I thought he was going to make the call.”
That is, relieve Kershaw of the ball and hand the ball to Jansen for what he hoped would be a seven-out save, the last of it through some of the best the Chicago Cubs had.
It is, turns out, one thing to know what one is going to do when one leaves the dugout railing, another to stand before Kershaw and ask him to leave this thing undone. To leave it to the next man up. Kershaw likes those guys. Trusts them. Believes in them. Still, they are not him. It’s his job to be him. Most times that has played, sometimes it has not, and yet it seems none of that matters late on a Sunday night when the NLCS could be tied at a game apiece or rolling downhill for the Cubs.
“I don’t think that part’s ever going to change in him,” Honeycutt said.
Still, Honeycutt called down to the bullpen. The message for Jansen: Be ready for Baez.
Roberts said he looked Kershaw in the eye. They all look Kershaw in the eye. That’s where it starts, and then where it ends, and about the time they usually turn around and decide to live with what comes next.
“I had every intent to go out there and get him and go to Kenley,” Roberts said. “I just, I went with my gut and just kind of – he said we can get this guy, I can get this guy. And at that point in time that’s all I needed to hear. So it was just about him executing. And obviously Baez got into it.”
Well, and that’s the second part of the story. The infielders returned to their positions. The catcher retreated to his. Jansen threw another warm-up pitch. Roberts reached the dugout and waited.
Kershaw threw a fastball. Baez took it low for ball one. Then Kershaw threw another fastball, the last pitch of his night, his 84th. It ran to the outer part of the zone, away from the right-handed-hitting Baez, who swung hard and met the ball with a crack. In the dugout, Honeycutt flinched. Roberts snapped his head toward center field, where Joc Pederson dashed toward the ivied wall. The crowd shrieked. Kershaw turned and stood facing the center-field wall.
“I thought it was out, for sure,” he said.
Baez got out of the box.
“I really hit it good,” he said. “But just a little out front.”
Pederson reached the warning track, backed into the ivy and gloved the fly ball.
Kershaw exhaled and backed down the mound, toward home plate.
When he reached the dugout, Honeycutt extended his hand. Kershaw smiled and said, “I’m just trying to get my throat back out of my stomach.”
Jansen got the final six outs without complications. The Dodgers were 1-0 winners and returned to Los Angeles even in the series, Jake Arrieta looming in Game 3. The series changed. October remained the same. They have won every game in which Kershaw touched the baseball and lost the rest. He survived a seventh inning, more than survived it, and got the ball to Jansen, which is where the Dodgers’ postseason has veered when they do win.
Only this time, on this October night, he had not allowed a baserunner until there were two out in the fifth inning. This time only one man reached second base. This time there were no questions, only a well-worn path, trampled and marked by the men who probably should know better by now.