A come-from-behind 6-2 win on Saturday assured the Dodgers that this World Series would return to Los Angeles. How they arrive there will have a lot to do with Kershaw — and no one inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Minute Maid Park would want for that onus to be on anyone else’s shoulders.
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“He’s the best pitcher in the world,” closer Kenley Jansen said after the Game 4 win. “And he’s been looking to prove a lot of people wrong for a long time.”
It seems silly to ask Kershaw to prove much more than he has already in his career. But missing next to those three National League Cy Young Awards and an NL MVP Award is a World Series ring. Having been so close to reaching this stage before, Kershaw is savoring it now and feeling the benefits of having a formidable supporting cast around him.
A rebuilt bullpen has allowed manager Dave Roberts to avoid pushing Kershaw beyond a point of comfort, and a deeper rotation means that the lefty hasn’t been summoned to pitch on short rest all month. It’s positioned Kershaw to be at peak physical condition despite pitching deeper into October than ever before.
“I’m going to be ready to go, and [am] looking forward to that challenge,” Kershaw said. “Each game is, in and of itself, [a] Game 7-type atmosphere for us.”
Kershaw stymied the Astros back in Los Angeles on Tuesday, when the World Series opened with a 3-1 Dodgers victory. Kershaw covered the first seven innings and became the second pitcher in baseball history to strike out 11 and not issue a walk in a World Series game. His lone mistake was a homer served up to Alex Bregman.
It was the sort of statement start that Kershaw hadn’t always been able to offer in October. And fair or not, those earlier struggles had trailed him into his World Series debut.
“Guys like Kershaw who have excelled every single step of the way are going to beat it over time,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “I think everybody believes in that. You believe that player has the capabilities of [moving past that]. When they do it — I don’t love that it was done against us — this is now when you’re going to rip that tag off. Sometimes the narrative doesn’t fit the fact.”
Kershaw has pitched at Minute Maid Park once since 2012, with that appearance coming during the ’15 season. During that outing, Kershaw held the Astros to one run on seven hits, struck out 10 and walked none in eight innings. Facing him that day were Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Evan Gattis and Marwin Gonzalez.
There’s often an added degree of difficulty for a pitcher facing the same lineup twice within a week’s span. But this is Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher of his generation. As he’s already reminded us this postseason that it’s best for everyone else to leave any preconceived expectations alone.
“It’s a three-game series, and we’ve got our ace going [Sunday],” Roberts said. “So I know that in our clubhouse we feel good.”
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.