By Jon Weisman
If the Dodgers’ victory today clawed every bit of energy out of the fans, it nearly did the same out of Clayton Kershaw.
“I’m glad that we pulled it out,” Kershaw said after the 6-5 win in Game 4 of the National League Division Series against Washington, extending the Dodgers’ playoff run to Game 5 on Thursday. “I’m exhausted, for one — just physically and mentally drained. But we get to live another day.”
Kershaw did not get a personal win for his effort, nor an escape from his complicated postseason legacy, which now includes yet another seventh-inning comeback by an opponent.
But no one watching the 28-year-old left-hander, who in 6 2/3 innings threw 110 pitches (his most in an injury-marred season since May 29), could conclude that he left anything but everything on the mound today.
“That’s the thing,” Dave Roberts said. “That’s one of the challenges we talk about in our clubhouse, is after any game, whether it be a playoff game or a regular-season game, you should not be only physically but mentally exhausted. And the thing is, his conviction, his preparation … for Clayton to leave every bit of himself out there speaks to why he’s great. That’s why he’s the best pitcher on the planet.”
Kershaw said he was plenty prepared to make the start today, without campaigning for it.
“I told him that I’m capable,” he said. “I didn’t want them to not pitch me because they didn’t think I could do it. … You want me to do it, just let me know.”
Kershaw struggled through a 27-pitch first inning that began with a first-pitch single by Trea Turner and a 10-pitch walk by Bryce Harper. He said his biggest out of the game might have been the ensuing strikeout of Jayson Werth, “just to make sure I could get an out.”
But after allowing a run in that inning and another in the third on Daniel Murphy’s sacrifice fly, Kershaw retired eight in a row and 11 of the next 12, aided by a one-out diving catch by Joc Pederson in the sixth with a runner on first.
“That inning, they hit some balls hard, (so) to get that guy out in the sixth was huge,” Kershaw said. “That made it two outs in that inning — it could have very easily been first and third right there.”
Though the microscope will look at it more kindly through the filter of the Dodger victory, today’s seventh inning does fall into its frame. Kershaw entered the inning with a 5-2 lead and 89 pitches already on his back. Roberts didn’t hesitate to send him back out for more.
“At that point in time, pitch count, throwing the ball really well … he’s our best option,” Roberts said.
Pedro Baez and Luis Avilan warmed up behind Kershaw, but after a leadoff single by Danny Espinosa and a two-out infield hit by Trea Turner, Roberts visited the mound — then left Kershaw to face Harper.
“I wanted him to get Harper,” Roberts said.” You look at who we have, I think that Clayton is our best option. And it was a great battle between those two guys.”
Murphy fell behind 1-2, and Kershaw arguably had a strike three ruled a ball by home plate umpire Tom Hallion, who early in the game was in his best Frank Drebin mode on Kershaw’s called strikeouts, before incurring the wrath of Dodger Stadium with some unfavorable balls.
“There was one (in the seventh) that was a strike I think,” Kershaw said. “I think in the first inning there was a strike that (Harper) walked on, too. He’s a really good hitter — you don’t need to give him any more strikes.”
Either way, Nationals manager Dusty Baker thought the Kershaw-Harper showdown bordered on epic.
“Man, that is what baseball is all about right there,” Baker said. “A matter of will. And Kershaw was on empty. We knew it. They knew it. Everybody knew it. That was some battle.”
Though Kershaw lost that fight — and ultimately the lead, when Pedro Baez and Luis Avilan allowed three inherited runners to score — Baker effused praise for the Dodger ace.
“Kershaw was outstanding,” Baker said. “That’s one of the best performances I’ve seen, especially on three days’ rest.”
Harper, who was 1 for 15 against Kershaw entering the NLDS before doubling in three Game 1 at-bats, became the first batter to draw two unintentional walks off Kershaw in a game in more than a year.
“Kershaw, he’s been hard on him his whole career,” Baker said, “and he knows it and Kershaw knows it and you guys know it — everybody knows it.”
Kershaw sometimes makes pitching look so easy, it can be confusing when it reveals itself as the brutal challenge the sport really is. But that’s when Kershaw’s competitiveness finds its way through.
“Every pitch matters in this game, so sometimes you’ve got to stop thinking about what’s going on and just keep thinking about the next pitch,” Kershaw said, “doing it over and over again until you’re done.”