As I sat watching Clayton Kershaw throwing those pitches in Washington, trying to protect a one-run lead and save the Dodgers’ season, of course my mind hearkened to 1988, when Orel Hershiser was doing the same thing in the 12th inning in New York.
But just as present was 2009, Jonathan Broxton trying to protect a one-run lead and save the Dodgers’ season in Philadelphia.
Part of the problem was I was literally in the exact same seat, in our little half-office at home, watching on the same 13-inch television purchased in an era closer to Tommy Lasorda than Dave Roberts. It was the same moment, the same prayers, the same brain-crushing line between agony and ecstasy.
You’ll say that there’s a big difference between Kershaw and Broxton, and you’re not wrong. But on the other hand, what has Kershaw been in the postseason but Broxton — a pitcher with great regular-season skill who nevertheless never seemed to catch a break when he needed one in the playoffs. When I think of Dodgers since 1988 who have been snakebit in October, those two names are in a class by themselves.
Kershaw, in a way people have finally begun to realize, has been challenging the narrative of himself as a broken man in October. His seven innings of one-run ball in Game 4 of the 2015 National League Division Series, his six strong innings in Game 4 of the 2016 NLDS — all these began turning the wider perspective of Kershaw around to recall his earlier successes, such as his 13-inning dominance against in the 2013 NLDS and his six innings without allowing an earned run in Game 2 of the 2013 NLCS.
When the Dodger bullpen surrendered his seventh-inning lead Tuesday, after it was clear Kershaw had been worked to the bone, for the first time in my memory, the broader sensibility seemed to be one of sympathy for Kershaw rather than judgment.
But still, there we were, Kershaw facing Daniel Murphy — the Matt Stairs and, yes, Carlos Ruiz of this decade, all rolled into one. A single would destroy a dream, a double would drop a nightmare like an anvil.
Of all things, Murphy popped out. Kershaw would later hint that maybe he, the pitcher who had never had any luck in the playoffs, might have finally found some.
“You know, he’s probably the best hitter in the National League,” Kershaw said. “He was out for, I don’t know how long, for the regular season, and came back in the series and just put the barrel on the ball every at-bat, basically. So it’s a tough out right there. I think thankfully I missed my spot, honestly, and got in on him a little bit and got him to jam.”
There was still one batter to go. The next hitter, Wilmer DiFo was someone half of you hadn’t heard of and the other half of you thought co-starred in “Platoon.” In his big-league career, he had 12 singles, three doubles, one home run, seven RBI. This would be no contest, unless you believe in cosmic jokes much bigger than any of us. And, given the ghosts of Dodger postseasons past, why wouldn’t you?
I lowered my laptop lid and leaned into the old TV, Hershiser on my right shoulder, Broxton on my left, 1988 in my heart, 2009 in my head.
Kershaw threw a curveball. DiFo swung and missed. The ball bounced in the dirt. Kershaw pumped both his fists, then raised his arms almost as he had when he threw his 2014 no-hitter, only still having to wait for Ruiz to pick up the ball and make an accurate throw to first.
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It was over. Kershaw had done it. He had done the Hershiser.
“I thank God for being able to be at his side,” Urias said through an interpreter, according to Doug Padilla of ESPN.com. “When I saw him come in the clubhouse and put on his spikes, I knew he was ready to go and I learned a lot about him at that moment. He’s about winning and all that goes through his mind is winning, winning, winning. I’m so glad that everything worked out.”
In the whiteout delirium that followed, my focus returning to the present as the celebration began and I put the delayed finishing touches on my postgame piece, I didn’t think to place the entire game into context until this tweet from my former Variety colleague, Stu Oldham.
— Stuart Oldham (@s_oldham) October 14, 2016
Just like that, 28 years of games whirled through my mind. Nothing from the interregnum between 1989 and 2003 would remotely qualify. Then you come to these, the Mt. Rushmore of Dodger games since 1988:
- Steve Finley’s grand slam clinches the NL West in 2004
- Jose Lima’s 2004 NLDS shutout, ending an eight-game postseason losing streak
- The 4+1 Game, September 2006
- Juan Uribe’s NLDS-winning home run, 2013
Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS tops them all. It tops Uribe, because this one came in an epic game that the Dodgers couldn’t lose. The stakes were higher than the 4+1 Game or even Finley’s slam. And Lima Time, precious as it was, only seemed to forestall the inevitable.
If you watched on Thursday, you watched the greatest Dodger game since Game 1 of the 1988 World Series — which itself was the greatest Dodger game since Game 4 of the 1988 NLCS.
Are there more to come? The Dodgers are certain underdogs to the Chicago Cubs in the upcoming NLCS. That could spell doom … or it could set the stage for more magic.