Dave Roberts wasn’t going home without using his best pitchers. And because he used them, he isn’t going home.
From the first inning of the series-clinching 4-3 win, Roberts used his best pitchers, even in uncomfortable situations, starting with Rich Hill, who made his second career start on three days’ rest. Young pitching phenom Julio Urias was deployed as a shutdown middle reliever. Closer Kenley Jansen turned over a lineup for the first time in his career. And Clayton Kershaw earned his first major-league save on just a single day of rest. Roberts may have burned out his entire pitching staff, but he’s going to the National League Championship Series to face the Cubs.
Starting in a suboptimal situation, Hill wasn’t quite his normal ace self, allowing a run in the second and leaving the game in the third with runners on the corners and two outs. Roberts had hinted before the game that his plan was to turn things over from Hill to Urias, but instead he brought in veteran Joe Blanton to inherit the jam. Blanton, after washing out of the majors as a starter and spending 2014 out of baseball, has been a revelation in relief. He got Anthony Rendon to line to center to end the threat in the third, and pitched a clean fourth.
From there, Roberts went to Urias. A prospect without peers for his entire professional career, Urias routinely dominated leagues at unprecedented ages. Though he debuted in the majors at 19 and showed promise, the Dodgers haven’t pushed him real hard on a seasonal basis—the two innings he pitched in Game 5 were just his 123rd and 124th total this year—and on the rare occasions he’s pitched deep in games, he’s struggled. This made Urias a great candidate to go through the lineup once, which he did with style, assisted by one of the worst TOOTBLANs you’ll ever see courtesy of Jayson Werth.
For six innings, Max Scherzer blanked the Dodgers opposite Roberts’ strung-together crew. But after a Joc Pederson leadoff homer in the seventh, Dusty Baker lifted Scherzer at just 99 pitches, a decision sure to linger in the minds of Washington fans for years to come. A string of ineffective relievers followed. The Dodgers entered the bottom of the seventh up 4-1.
Jansen, unlike most elite closers, has no experience as a starting pitcher. He converted from catching to relief pitching in the minors. In his entire professional career, he’d never been asked to go more than two innings. His career-high in pitches was 42, back in 2011. He’d never faced the same batter twice in the same game. In 2016, Jansen had never gone past an inning-and-two-thirds or 30 pitches. Besides, elite closers just aren’t asked to put out these fires in the seventh inning, even in an all-hands-on-deck double-elimination game, not in the 2010s. Yet here was Roberts, calling for his closer, seemingly with no safety net. Seemingly.
Jansen gave up a one-out single to Bryce Harper, advancing the tying run to third, but he escaped after striking out Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon to get out of trouble, with an intentional walk to Daniel Murphy in between. Jansen walked Stephen Drew to lead off the eighth, and his command started to deteriorate noticeably. But Danny Espinosa popped out trying to bunt, and even a diminished Jansen made quick work of backups Pedro Severino and Michael Taylor to get the game to the ninth.
Meanwhile, observers at the ballpark started noting on Twitter the dugout movements of Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. After vociferously cheering in the dugout for the first seven innings, Clayton put his hood up on his sweatshirt, then disappeared for about a half-inning. When he came back, he’d exchanged his sweatshirt for a warm-up jacket. It was all a bit of a fanciful Twitter wish-casting, a what-if about a potentially legendary relief appearance on the magnitude of Madison Bumgarner in 2014 or Randy Johnson in 2001. Roberts, before the game, had completely dismissed the idea of using Kershaw on just a day of rest. Yet before the top of the ninth, the greatest lefty in decades trotted out to the bullpen, took off his jacket, and started throwing with purpose. Clayton Kershaw was in play.
Jansen pushed himself into totally unknown territory in the ninth. He disposed of Trea Turner easily enough, but Harper worked a walk. By now, Jansen looked like a pitcher extended far past his limits. Roberts trotted out to the mound to take his closer’s temperature, and decided to leave him in to face Werth. Werth walked. With Murphy, now one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball up, Roberts summoned the best pitcher in baseball for his first save chance since the Gulf Coast League in 2006.
The last two home runs Clayton Kershaw allowed to a left-handed hitter were to Daniel Murphy and Daniel Murphy, both in the 2015 NLDS. Murphy took a mighty swing on a 1-0 fastball and got just a little under it, popping to second. Behind Murphy was the pitcher’s spot, and Dusty Baker had one man left on his bench, promising infield prospect Wilmer Difo. Difo quickly found out that Kershaw out of the bullpen has stuff even more unhittable than normal Kershaw.
Despite putting together one of the greatest runs of any pitcher in baseball history, Kershaw has struggled by his lofty standards in the playoffs. In some circles, he’s gained a tag as a pitcher unable to come up in the big spot. He’s been hurt especially by comparisons to Bumgarner, in the regular season an inferior pitcher in the same division, but one of the best postseason pitchers in baseball history and a World Series MVP. Kershaw entered a game he had no business being in, just two seasons short of a player opt-out that will likely make him one of the highest-paid players in the history of sports, putting it all on the line to save his team’s season.
With a 1-2 count to Difo, Clayton Kershaw ripped off one the best curveballs of a career filled with all the best curveballs. Baseball’s greatest pitcher finally had his signature playoff moment. And the Dodgers are going to the National League Championship Series.
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