Brothers in Arms: Koufax, Kershaw, and the Dodgers’ Extraordinary Pitching Tradition comes to a conclusion with a focus on Clayton Kershaw at the end of the 2017 season. The book was published in 2018, without any knowledge of what was to be revealed about that 2017 World Series.
Below, I’m reprinting the final 1,000 words of the book, just to serve as a reminder of where we stood at that time and to help underscore what it meant for Kershaw to get his World Series title.
In the first World Series game for the Dodgers since 1988 and the hottest World Series game on record (first-pitch temperature: 103 degrees), against the top offense he had ever faced in the playoffs, Kershaw presented his biggest nationwide audience with his most dominant playoff start, throwing seven innings of one-run ball against the Astros in which he allowed three hits and no walks while striking out 11—the first World Series pitcher of any stripe to fan at least 11 with no walks since Newcombe in 1949. This was Kershaw incarnate, the one everybody had expected all along. After Los Angeles and Houston went on to split the first four games of the Series, Kershaw returned to the mound in Houston for Game 5, and with the Dodgers scoring three runs in the first inning and another in the top of the fourth, there before Kershaw stood the most pristine opportunity to seal his legacy.
Kershaw had faced the minimum nine hitters in three shutout innings. Backed by the stout (if tiring) Dodger bullpen, he needed at most four more effective frames.
Maybe even three.
Maybe even only two.
Again, there was no warning. To start the bottom of the fourth, Kershaw’s command vanished. He walked George Springer, and after a deep fly out by Alex Bregman, the suddenly struggling lefty allowed a single to José Altuve, an RBI double to Carlos Correa, and a stunning, three-run, game-tying homer by Yuli Gurriel—the eighth round-tripper allowed by Kershaw in the playoffs and 31st of the calendar year.
NL Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger countered with a three-run homer to give Kershaw a second chance at glory, but with two out in the bottom of the fifth, he walked Springer and Bregman, forcing his exit from the game in favor of Kenta Maeda, who had been unscored upon in the postseason as a right-handed relief specialist. Altuve blasted Maeda’s eighth pitch for a three-run homer, and once again, ultimate playoff salvation eluded Kershaw, who was unable to hold two leads or stop the bleeding when he needed to. The Dodgers lost one of the most unfathomable, unforgettable games in World Series history, 13–12 in 10 innings. So close to returning home with a 3–2 Series lead for what would have likely been a coronation, the Dodgers were practically shattered, Kershaw among the wreckage.
“You want to be good every time you go out there, and this postseason I felt like I threw the ball pretty well,” Kershaw said. “But yeah, that was tough, no doubt. So it’s something that I’ll live with.”
Picking up the pieces, the Dodgers returned to Los Angeles now as underdogs, but their comeback, 3–1 victory in Game 6 set the stage for an all-hands-on-deck Game 7. “I can go 27 innings,” Kershaw stated plainly, putting Game 5 far behind him. “Whatever they need.” Hyperbole aside, some first-guessed that if the Dodgers were going to pitch Kershaw at all, they should start him, even on two days’ rest. But Los Angeles had Darvish, whose Game 3 beatdown didn’t change the fact that he had been acquired specifically to help Kershaw pitch the Dodgers to a title. Yet for the second game in a row, Darvish couldn’t survive past the second inning, and when Kershaw entered at the top of the third, the Dodgers already trailed 5–0.
Kershaw pitched superbly over his four shutout innings of relief, amplifying the drumbeat that he should have started Game 7. In a weird way, the longstanding narrative questioning his postseason mettle crashed into the broader one that despite everything, this remained the best pitcher in baseball, a collision that left almost no one satisfied outside of Houston.
The 2017 season brought Kershaw closer than ever to his dream of winning the World Series, brought his admirers closer than ever to their dream of validation, once and for all. In the end, the Dodgers pushed across only one run despite 12 baserunners, losing Game 7 by a 5–1 score, and a team and a pitcher that had gone further than any from Los Angeles since 1988 fell one game short.
“Maybe one of these days I won’t fail, we won’t fail, and we’ll win one of these things,” Kershaw said. “It’s hard. You go through this much effort to win that many games against this many good teams and it’s … I mean, I hope to get to this point again.”
Kershaw has had playoff moments spectacular and devastating, lucky and unlucky. His legacy stands to be greater than Koufax’s on one level, but without a World Series victory, there would be that touch of Newcombe and Sutton, the greatest Dodger pitchers to go winless in the postseason. In his thirties, would the ultimate vindication come for Kershaw? What can he do to keep sane while wondering? “
You try to think about all the individual stuff you do, it’s impossible,” Kershaw says. “You just try to block that out, forget about last year. Just come in, try to win, and whether you do or not, forget about it and pitch again five days later.
“Just understanding how short a career is, even if you have a long period, even if you have a 15-year career, it’s still 15 years of your entire life. To just understand that baseball is kind of a moment in your lifetime helps me enjoy it, helps me not to have any bad days in the field.”
The future will tell its own story. The mystery and wonder will carry on.
No matter what happens, there will always remain the memory of seeing Kershaw, the greatest pitcher of his generation, potentially every generation, with the best adjusted ERA for a starter in history, as the flagbearer of a tradition arcing across two cities and beyond seven decades. In all of sports, Clayton Kershaw embodied one of the greatest, most reliable joys there is: the sight of a Dodger, dressed in white and blue on a pristine field at Dodger Stadium, taking the mound.