Hernández: No longer an October failure, Clayton Kershaw is a win away from becoming a champion




 

As Clayton Kershaw walked into the World Series interview room Sunday night, he wasn't the best pitcher of his generation, but a father reminding his children how to behave.

"So you can't really see anybody, but they're just going to ask questions," Kershaw said. "I've got to talk, just for a little bit."

The top of his head barely visible on the videoconference feed, 3-year-old Charley replied, "OK."

Charley's sister, 5-year-old Cali Ann, also was nearby.

Kershaw kept a hand on his son's shoulder. He smiled.

So this is what it's like.

This simple moment is what he was chasing for almost 15 years since the Dodgers drafted him.

With another victory by the Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw finally will be a World Series champion.

He addressed reporters not as an October failure, but as the winning pitcher of two games in this series against the Tampa Bay Rays, the most recent a 4-2 victory in Game 5 that moved the Dodgers back in front, three games to two.

The look of devastation from previous postseasons was replaced by an occasional smile.

"Any time you have any success in the postseason, it just means so much," Kershaw said. "That's what you work for, that's what you play for this month. I know what the other end of that feels like too."

Kershaw didn't pitch his greatest game Sunday night. By his own admission, he didn't throw his slider effectively.

"Curveball too, actually," he said upon further consideration.

In a career defined by dominance, his signature playoff performance was anything but superhuman.

He was charged with two runs in 5-2/3 innings. The Rays had runners on base in each of the first four innings.

If his authoritative victory in Game 1 showcased the skills he devoted a lifetime to developing, his Game 5 triumph exhibited his determination.

"He just grinded," manager Dave Roberts said. "He just willed himself to that point."

This was the version of Kershaw most people had heard or read about, but rarely saw. This was the pitcher who spent early afternoons running sprints in the Dodger Stadium outfield before many teammates reported for work. This was the beast in weight room. Behind his mastery was a competitive drive that is unusual even at the professional level.

The comically nightmarish finish in Game 4 behind them, the Dodgers jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead.

Trouble found Kershaw in the third inning, when Yandy Diaz hooked a triple into the right-field corner to drive in Kevin Kiermaier. Diaz scored when Randy Arozarena chopped a high curveball into left field for a single.

But gut-check time came an inning later when Kershaw walked leadoff batter Manny Margot. With Hunter Renfroe at the plate, Margot stole second base. Dodgers second baseman Chris Taylor failed to secure a throw from catcher Austin Barnes and Margot advanced to third as the ball rolled into the outfield.

When Renfroe walked, the Rays suddenly had runners on the corners with no outs. The Dodgers' lead was down to 3-2.

"It's really just trying to make pitches," Kershaw said. "You kind of almost assume that that runner is going to get in somehow. So you just try to get the next three guys out."

He started by forcing Joey Wendle to pop up to short.

"Once Wendle popped that ball up, I felt like I was finding a way of getting out of that," Kershaw said.

The next victim was Willy Adames, whom he struck out on three pitches.

Then came what could prove to be the most important throw of Kershaw's career. It wasn't a slider or curveball that paralyzed his opponent. Margot attempted to steal home.

At some point, Kershaw had raised the possibility of something like this happening to first baseman Max Muncy.

"When I come set, I don't really see the runner, so you've got to yell when they start going," Kershaw recalled telling him.

Which is what Muncy did.

"Home! Home! Home!" Muncy screamed as he ran toward Kershaw.

Kershaw threw home. Margot was out by inches.

After a perfect fifth inning, Kershaw returned to the bench, where Roberts explained the plan for the sixth to him. Kershaw was to face the first two batters. Dustin May would replace him and pitch to Diaz.

It so happened that Kershaw retired Arozarena and Brandon Lowe on two pitches.

When Roberts scaled the mound to take the ball from his hands, the infielders protested.

So did the partisan crowd, which booed Roberts.

Kershaw departed with six strikeouts in the game and 207 in his postseason career, a new record. The previous mark of 205 was established by Justin Verlander.

Once the victory was secure, Kershaw was at peace with the decision and even went out of his way to praise Roberts.

He got what he wanted.

Well, almost.

The Dodgers and Rays don't play Monday. The series resumes Tuesday.

"The off day is going to be hard tomorrow," Kershaw said.

"It's going be good for us, resetting our bullpen, which is good. But sitting around, one win away from a World Series, is going to be hard, especially when you've been in the same hotel for four weeks now."

He said he thought he could wait one more day. Of course he could. He's already been waiting for 15 years.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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