It was hardly a legacy-defining outing, but Clayton Kershaw's final start of 2020 put the Los Angeles Dodgers one win away from their first World Series championship in 32 years. Kershaw and the Dodgers defeated the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5 on Sunday (LA 4, TB 2) to take a 3-2 series lead. They'll look to clinch the title in Game 6 on Tuesday.
Kershaw limited the Rays to two runs in 5 2/3 innings in Game 5 and, in the process, he became the all-time leader in postseason strikeouts. Here's the leaderboard:
- Clayton Kershaw: 207 (189 innings)
- Justin Verlander: 205 (187 2/3 innings)
- John Smoltz: 199 (209 innings)
- Andy Pettitte: 183 (276 2/3 innings)
- Roger Clemens: 173 (199 strikeouts)
Kershaw did not dominate in Game 5. He was in bend-but-don't-break mode all night. He allowed the leadoff runner to reach base in each of the first four innings -- he'd never done that in any of his previous 383 career starts, according to Inside Edge -- but got a timely double play in the first inning, and Tampa gave him a few gift outs on the bases.
Most notably, Manuel Margot was thrown out trying to steal home to end the fourth inning. Margot tried to take advantage of being in Kershaw's blind spot and the way he deliberately raises his arms in the stretch, but no dice. Kershaw stepped off, threw home, and catcher Austin Barnes applied the tag in time. Here's the play:
The Rays had runners on the corners with no outs in that fourth inning -- Margot represented the tying run at the time -- but Kershaw put himself in position to escape with a Joey Wendle pop-up and a Willy Adames strikeout. The strikeout came on a hammer curveball that dropped off the table and out of the zone. A Hall of Fame pitch, it was. Margot was then thrown out at home.
It wasn't until Margot's out at home that Kershaw settled in. He had his first 1-2-3 inning in the fifth inning and then got two outs on two pitches to begin the sixth. Prior to Game 5, manager Dave Roberts said he was planning to let Kershaw face 21 batters and 21 batters he faced. He was pulled with a 4-2 lead after 85 pitches and Roberts was met with a smattering of boos on the field.
"That was the plan," Kershaw told reporters, including Matthew Moreno of Dodger Blue, when asked about being removed after two quick outs in the sixth. "We talked about it before the inning. Even though it was just two pitches, we stuck with the plan, so credit Doc for that one."
Of course, Roberts is likely setting Kershaw up for a potential Game 7 relief appearance, and he was going through the middle of the lineup a third time. Even an all-time great like Kershaw is less effective the third time through the order. Also, Kershaw's playoff career is littered with good starts that were ruined because he was left in too long. Roberts wasn't risking it in Game 5.
Kershaw cruised in the Game 1 win, striking out eight Rays in six innings of one-run ball. He was not nearly as sharp in Game 5. Case in point: Tampa's hitter took 41 swings against Kershaw in Game 5, missing 11 times and fouling away 17 pitches. In Game 1, they took 38 swings against Kershaw, missing 19 times against only nine fouls. They were on him a little bit more Sunday.
Aces do two things: they dominate, and on the days they don't dominate, they still find ways to put their team in position to win. Kershaw did dominate in Game 1. He struck out eight in six innings of one-run ball -- Kershaw now has a 2.93 ERA in five starts this postseason -- and it came very easy. Those are the games that remind you he is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Then there are games like Game 5, when nothing came easy until the very end of the outing. Kershaw threw 53 of his 85 pitches from the stretch and faced only nine of those 21 batters with no one on base, and at one point five men reached base in a seven-batter span. In the past, a start like Game 5 might've unraveled on Kershaw, particularly in October.
Instead, Kershaw managed to keep the Rays off the scoreboard in four of his five full innings, and he protected the early lead his offense gave him following the misery of Game 4. Game 5 probably won't satisfy those wanting true greatness each time Kershaw takes the mound in the postseason, but there's no sense in trying to appease the critics now. Some people are never satisfied.
The only thing missing on Kershaw's resume is a World Series championship and he's now one win away from a ring, and he's not riding coattails. He dominated in Game 1 and he pitched well in Game 5 despite not being razor sharp. Kershaw is a significant reason -- maybe the reason -- Los Angeles holds a 3-2 series lead rather than the reason they might again go home empty-handed.
"I couldn't be happier that the postseason he's had. Mirrors who he is as a pitcher," Roberts told reporters, including Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, following Game 5. "He deserves it."