Clayton Kershaw spent most of Tuesday night at his dugout rail. He wore a blue hoodie and, if the sweat stains were to be believed, his gamer cap. His back spasms were the story for most of Tuesday afternoon, given he’d be at the rail for Game 2 of the National League Championship Series and not on the pitcher’s mound.
This dismayed Los Angeles Dodgers fans, especially those who have learned to live with the various versions of October Kershaw and choose to believe in the better ones, along with the Dodgers themselves. Maybe he’d be well enough to pitch Game 4, though late Tuesday night Dodgers manager Dave Roberts would not — or could not — commit to it, leaving open the possibility the Dodgers could come and go in this NLCS without ever pitching Kershaw.
He has yet to pitch a Game 1 in any of the Dodgers’ three postseason series, but Kershaw, at 32, remains their ace in all ways but fastball velocity. He has achieved more, has stood for more, has celebrated more and has mourned more than any of them, and besides that has been their best starting pitcher for the past three months. That Kershaw has fallen temporarily, and so is limited to at best one start against the Atlanta Braves, is the poorly timed hardship teams pick over on the last bus ride home.
As it was, the Dodgers gave the ball to rookie Tony Gonsolin in Game 2. He pitched well enough for a 26-year-old making his 15th major league start and in his first game action of any kind in 2 ½ weeks. The Dodgers also gave up eight runs. They allowed more than that only three times all season. So, it went perhaps as could have been expected. A few runs and an early deficit lead to decisions in bullpen management that lean to living to fight another day, which is how Roberts rightly played it. The decent Gonsolin start went out with a few shoddy bullpen moments, the choice not to throw good arms after bad outcomes, and thoughts of arriving for Game 3 at full throttle. Which, you know, makes Game 3, which falls to Julio Urías, pretty important.
And, well, here’s the thing about the Dodgers as they and their championship desires go, as far as Kershaw goes — after these three-plus decades, after eight consecutive division titles amounted to zero parades, after they were easily the best team in baseball when this tournament was seeded, in some part because their offense was impenetrable:
None of it matters if they’re not going to hit. Again.
None of it matters if on Wednesday, Kyle Wright pitches them the way Max Fried did Monday and Ian Anderson did Tuesday. None of it matters if they’re going to hit .220 like they did while being eliminated by the Washington Nationals last fall, or .180 like in the World Series in 2018, or .205 like in the World Series before that, or .210 in the 2016 NLCS, when that season ended. None of it matters if it begins to feel inevitable, that they’re in that place again.
“You know, they’re a good team, they have a good staff, the starter was good, he kept us off balance all night, he was in the zone when he needed to, he got us to chase a couple times,” said Corey Seager, among the few who has brought August and September with him into October. “Just been a battle for us the last two days. They’ve thrown some pretty good games and we’ve got to make the adjustment.”
Meantime, one loss became two, Los Angeles turned from the Lakers to the baseball season, cleared its eyes and maybe wondered if it had the stomach for another one of these Octobers.
The Dodgers don’t have a Kershaw problem, not when he’s healthy and not when he needs a couple days to become so and not even when October takes his breath. They have a Cody Bellinger problem. They have a Max Muncy problem. They have a Justin Turner problem, a Chris Taylor problem, a home run problem, an on-base problem, a scoring runs problem, a batter’s box composure problem and that even goes for Tuesday night’s Game 2, when they jumped the softer side of the Braves’ otherwise taut bullpen for all their runs in an 8-7 loss. They were down, 7-0, before they lifted a bat to defend themselves. They scored one run the night before.
The offense that hit two home runs a game in the regular season has five in seven postseason games, and probably that’s because the pitching is better and Globe Life Field is an indoor airfield, and also this is generally how the Dodgers duck out of October. At times it has been Kershaw’s lonely walk from mound to dugout that demands our attention, because he is him and he has carried the last of the Dodgers’ hopes with him. His torment has covered for the sorts of nights like Monday, and Game 1, when a single swing amounted to all the Dodgers’ lineup had in it, or Tuesday, and Game 2, when little went right until it was too late, and his entire involvement was to watch from the rail.
They stop hitting. They get unlucky. They succumb to good pitching. Whatever it is. The air gets thick and the world leans in and through five innings they’ve got one lousy hit. So when Braves manager Brian Snitker started managing to the score himself, when he sat Mark Melancon down (before standing him up again), the Dodgers were able to put up seven late runs. That’s a lot of runs. As far as summoning an ounce of momentum that would have to do. They did put the bat on the ball. They did advance from seven runs down to within 90 feet from a 10th inning. They did, perhaps, quicken the pace of the Braves’ hearts just a little, enough to remind themselves there’d be another game and then another. Maybe it was the start of something, the start of taking aim at Kyle Wright and a Braves team that is as full of itself as the Dodgers were full of themselves two days ago, two weeks ago, a year ago, two years ago, three.
As they enter Game 3, they will know that Kershaw will be back at that rail, probably in a hoodie, probably in that familiar cap. Their late-game uprising merely got them to oh-two with slightly more flair. But it’s still oh-two. And they still must know there’s only one way forward.
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