When Clayton Kershaw arrives at 2021 Spring Training he’ll bring something he’s hasn’t had before. He won’t have gotten it yet—that won’t come for another couple of months—but he’ll have it.
After 13 years, 354 games started, and 2,333 innings pitched, Kershaw has a ring.
Kershaw didn’t have Madison Bumgarner’s longest save in World Series history, a Jack Morris 10-inning shutout, or Chris Sale’s save to clinch the 2018 title. Kershaw’s moment was much subtler. It was hidden away in the middle of game five; an inning 20 years from now that will be forgotten. But the bottom half of the fourth inning of the fifth game of 2020’s World Series was more than three outs or 17 minutes. It was the inning that redefined Kershaw’s career.
In the bottom of the fourth Kershaw thumbed rosin and dirt into the brim of his battered Dodgers cap. A film of sweat covered his face, but he breathed steadily. His first pitch was a fastball, lost six inches above the strike zone. Falling off the mound, Kershaw glanced skyward as he saw the pitch miss but quickly snapped his head back to his catcher to receive the ball.
The Dodger lefty had been dialed in for the game’s first two innings. His fastball was touching 93 and the slider was snapping away from the zone. It took him 26 pitches to get through two, with a strikeout and three groundouts.
In the third, a flukey Kevin Kiermaier leadoff single followed by a Yandy Diaz triple and Randy Arozarena base hit slashed the Dodger lead to one. Kershaw struck out Mike Zunino and Brandon Lowe in the inning, but the situation had escalated and the leash had tightened.
So when Kershaw’s first fourth inning pitch soared high, Manuel Margot didn’t even consider taking the bat off his shoulder. The Rays center fielder watched the second pitch right down the middle and three of the next four fall below the zone. The tying run was on.
The next batter was Hunter Renfroe, a career .136 hitter against Kershaw. The first pitch was Kershaw’s hardest of the night, a four-seamer that clipped the corner of the zone. But by the time it got to the catcher Austin Barnes, Margot was already halfway to second. Kershaw ducked and spun to face his second baseman, Chris Taylor, coming in to make the tag, but Barnes’ throw tipped off Taylor’s glove and skittered into right field. Margot stood and hesitated before bolting safely to third.
Kershaw caught the ball from Barnes and muttered to himself as Joe Buck began to doubt the Dodger veteran. “Definitely not as locked in as he was in game one,” the Fox broadcaster said.
Kershaw stocked the mound, rubbing the ball between his palms and staring at the turf. A runner on third with no outs has an 84.3% chance of scoring.
“You kinda almost assume that runner at third is going to get in somehow,” Kershaw said postgame. “You kinda just try to get the next three guys out.”
Barnes called for the next pitch low, but Kershaw’s curveball slipped out of his hand and caught the top of the zone. A bead of sweat built at the tip of Kershaw’s nose as he hurled the next pitch in, a ball low. Kershaw missed three more times and Renfroe spun his bat toward the Rays dugout, unstrapping his elbow guard to trot to first base. Runners on first and third with no outs have an 86% chance of generating a run.
The frame had a familiar compounding dread, building on the narrow escape from the inning prior. In 10 of Kershaw’s 37 playoff appearances, he failed to last longer than four innings. He allowed more runs than innings pitched in eight of them.
Kershaw spat off the mound, licked his wiry mustache, and glanced at the runners on the corners. He tossed over to Max Muncy at first, with no real intention of getting Renfroe out.
It was a parallel situation for Kershaw, one that had played out throughout his entire career. Kershaw’s playoff blowups rarely came at the hands of the long ball. His 28 playoff home runs in 189 IP (1.3 HR/9) are just a tick higher than his career norm. The crumbling begins with a harmless walk or ground ball single, extrapolated by an error, wild pitch, or overthrow, only to be capped off by the homer — the dagger.
In the 2013 NLCS game six, the St. Louis Cardinals were a win away from the World Series, but the Dodgers had their ace on the mound. A glance at the box score — a 9-0 Cardinals win — paints the picture of another Kershaw blowup. But the Dodger lefty allowed just three extra-base hits and ground-ball singles accounted for five of the Cards’ RBIs.
The next year, Kershaw and the Dodgers held a 6-2 lead in the seventh inning against the 90-72 Cardinals in the NLDS. Kershaw was dealing: six innings, eight strikeouts, no walks. Three straight Cardinal singles to start the frame raised St. Louis’ win expectancy just 12 points to 19 percent. Kershaw even struck out two before the five singles caught up to him. The first fly ball of the inning, a double from Matt Carpenter that cleared the bases, ending Kershaw’s day — the dagger.
In the fourth inning of game five, Kershaw’s first pitch to Joey Wendle drifted just inside, but he returned to it for the second. A middle-inside four-seam fastball — 92 on the gun — that caught Wendle flat-footed. Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager drifted under the ball at the edge of the grass and secured the inning’s first out. First and third, one out still has a 63.4% chance at producing a run.
Walking back from his catcher, Kershaw re-tucked his jersey with both hands, shoving down the shirt with glove atop his head like a middle-school baseball rally cap. He looked to his third basemen, Justin Turner, and the two nodded at each other. The defense was heavily shifted, but not in. With Margot and his 89th percentile sprint speed at third, a double play would be Kershaw’s easiest path back to the dugout.
The 2020 Dodgers defense ranked 19th in fielding percentage and 23rd in UZR. LA turned fewer regular-season double-plays than all but one NL playoff team. Of the 93 runs Kershaw allowed in his MLB playoff career, all but five were earned. Margot would be 94.
With runners on the corners and one out in the bottom of the fourth Kershaw took defense out of the equation. Slider, four-seamer, curveball. Kershaw’s 66th, 67th, and 68th pitches of the night struck out Willy Adames. A run expectancy of 86% was cut to 27%, but one batter remained.
Kiermaier pursed his lips and spiraled his bat, stepping into the left-handed batter’s box while Kershaw inhaled through his nostrils and released a single, deep breath.
Kershaw began his signature windup, the raised hand in glove, staring down Renfroe at first base before falling towards the plate. After fouling off the first pitch, Kiermaier stared into his dugout, lingering a second longer than usual and exhaling deeply.
The Dodger pitcher checked over his right shoulder at Margot, then back to Renfroe, raising his hands.
He didn’t know if it happened fast or slow, Kershaw said after the game. It happened all at once. Margot’s lead turned into a trot, turned into a run. Muncy yelled. Kershaw stepped off and threw home.
Margot popped up in an instant, glaring into his dugout with hands cupped over his ears asking for a replay review. Kershaw didn’t linger, he marched stone-faced to the dugout. Barnes’ tag was in time (as a review would later confirm) and Margot was out.
The Rays got two hits the rest of the game. The Dodgers won 4-2. And if you didn’t know, Los Angeles won the next game, too, to win the World Series.
Kershaw didn’t need to pitch in game six. He didn’t need to be available out of the bullpen. Game five, that fourth inning, was his World Series moment.
He was nothing new or different — he didn’t throw harder, paint more corners, or break off more sliders — he was Clayton Kershaw. The only thing new was the result.
“I know what the other end of that feels like too,” Kershaw said with a smile after the game, “so I’ll definitely take it when I can get it.”
Photo by Kevin French/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)