By Jon Weisman
Clayton Kershaw stood on the mound in the angled October sun, at once alone and the embodiment of the Dodgers’ postseason fate.
The very first pitch Kershaw threw today, following the fourth annual controversial decision to start him on three days’ rest in the National League Division Series, was lashed to left field by Washington rookie Trea Turner. The next batter, Bryce Harper, worked Kershaw for 10 pitches and a free pass to first.
Jayson Werth struck out, but Daniel Murphy grounded an RBI single into right field past a stumbling Chase Utley.
The fifth hitter of the game, Anthony Rendon, fouled off four consecutive pitches, then took ball two.
Clayton Kershaw stood on the mound. Like the Dodgers as an organization, he stood exposed. He was about to throw his 25th pitch, with one out to his credit. Dodger Stadium fans, scrambling to a game whose starting time was announced only 15 hours earlier, grit their teeth. The firestorm on Twitter was already unleashed, attacking the man on the mound and excoriating the decision to put him there.
Shy of three hours later, Harper walked a second time, loading the bases. Kershaw stood on the mound, as Dave Roberts came to pull him. Kershaw took the handshake and took the path to the dugout — to a Dodger Stadium and social media standing ovation.
With a fervent effort over 6 2/3 innings, leaving with a 5-2 lead, Kershaw had seized control of the game. He had run over the Nationals. He had won over the fans.
But would anyone remember the ovation, after what followed?
Pedro Baez, who hadn’t allowed anyone to score on his watch since August, hit Werth with his one and only pitch, to force in a run.
Luis Avilan entered to conquer the postseason beast that is Daniel Murphy, and failed, giving up a game-tying, two-run single.
The runs would be charged to Kershaw, the agony to everyone watching.
The score was 5-5, and the game pressed on. As it had been for most of the summer, the Dodgers would have to find a way to win — to save their season — without Kershaw.
* * *
The angst of Kershaw’s first inning still hung in the air as Joe Ross made quick work of Chase Utley and Corey Seager in the bottom of the first, but then Ross hit Justin Turner in the back with a pitch. Adrián González hit a towering drive over the wall in right center, popping the inflated agony like a balloon. Dodgers led, 2-1.
Kershaw needed only nine pitches to retire the bottom of the Nationals order in the second inning, but their top troupe tied the game in the third. Trea Turner and Werth singled, and Murphy hit a sacrifice fly to make the score 2-2.
Then Ross, who had thrown only 9 2/3 innings in the second half of the season because of right shoulder inflammation, fell apart in the third.
Kershaw led off, and you could practically hear Vin Scully exclaim “inside third and down the line” as the Dodger pitcher laced one to left field for a double.
Two outs later, he remained there, but Justin Turner knocked a ball in the gap that Trea Turner ran forever to but never reached, for a tiebreaking single. And then Ross lost the strike zone, walking González on a full count and Josh Reddick on four pitches, before hitting Joc Pederson in the right knee with a 2-2 pitch, making the score 4-2.
With two out in the bottom of the fifth, Pederson added an RBI double to drive in Reddick and pad the Dodger lead by another huge run.
So it stood until the seventh. Kershaw had already become the first Dodger to have four career playoff games with at least 10 strikeouts. He had thrown 89 pitches. Baez was throwing for a second time in the bullpen.
Danny Espinosa, hitless in the NLDS, slung Kershaw’s first pitch of the inning to left for a single, a thudding echo of how the first inning began. But Pedro Severino became Kershaw strikeout victim No. 11, and former Dodger Chris Heisey flied to center.
Then came Turner, who hit a 2-2 pitch to Seager’s left. Seager went to his knees to field it, but his flip to second base for a force was slow and late.
Then came Harper, and for Kershaw and the Dodgers, the descent into purgatory.
* * *
After Washington tied up the game, with two runners still on base, Joe Blanton put up a firebreak, striking out Rendon to end the top of the seventh and pitching a perfect top of the eighth, all after throwing 35 pitches the day before.
With two out in what appeared a quiet bottom of the eighth, Andrew Toles was hit by a pitch — the fourth time a Dodger had been so plunked in the game, setting an MLB postseason record. Andre Ethier, in his first actual at-bat of the playoffs, grounded a single to left field. With a 1-2 count, Utley singled to right, sending Toles racing home and the crowd out of its mind.
Kenley Jansen, stunned by a four-run ninth the day before, came on to get the final three outs.
Stephen Drew struck out.
Trea Turner struck out.
Bryce Harper, on a diving flip by Chase Utley to Jansen, grounded out, and the crowd erupted like a volcano.
The Dodgers won, 6-5. Wednesday, they will fly to Washington. Thursday, they will take the field — one game to make or break them.
The ovation for Clayton Kershaw? A footnote, perhaps, lost in the chaos that followed. But I’ll remember.