LOS ANGELES — Here they go again: The Los Angeles Dodgers, one loss away from clocking out for the final time in 2016, are handing the ball to Clayton Kershaw.

Poor guy. Already, he missed two-and-a-half months this summer with a herniated disk in his back. And this keeps coming up. Pray the Dodgers pack the proper back brace to protect him in Chicago.

Uh-oh. From the good vibrations following Game 3 when the Dodgers edged ahead of the Chicago Cubs in this National League Championship Series, Dave Roberts’ club has backed itself to a cliff’s edge with two hideous clunkers. The latest, Thursday’s 8-4 face-slap, sets up a Game 6 Saturday in which the Cubs, with a win, will clinch their first World Series appearance since 1945.

But that long-haired, left-handed, bearded obstacle standing between the Cubs and the World Series is not a billy goat.

It is Kershaw.

Yeah, we’ve been down that path this postseason. Seems like, oh, about every other day, in fact. Lather, rinse, repeat.

On Saturday, Hollywood’s favorite action hero will spring to life for the fifth time in these playoffs.

It will be third time he’s done it with his team facing elimination.

There was his short-rest Game 4 start in Los Angeles in the Division Series against Washington.

There was the dramatic, seven-pitch, two-out masterpiece in his first career save situation in Game 5 against the Nationals on one day’s rest, as literal a use of the word “save” as you can draw up, with the winner of that game advancing to meet the Cubs.

And now, with L.A. trailing this NLCS three games to two, here comes Saturday.

Somebody asked Kershaw what his “level of excitement” is, pitching in another loser-go-home game.

“I don’t know if excitement’s the right word,” the three-time Cy Young winner and one-time NL MVP winner said drolly. “But it will be exciting if we win, for sure.”

Whatever. It’s guaranteed to be more exciting than watching Kenta Maeda, Luis Avilan, Pedro Baez and the rest of the nondescript, lump-of-coal pitchers the Dodgers employ who are not named Kershaw, Kenley Jansen or Rich Hill.

My goodness. The more you watch the Dodgers this postseason, the more you understand what a miracle it was that they won the NL West. Kershaw has precious little help in the rotation this side of Hill.

The Dodgers got everything anybody could have expected out of Maeda on Thursday night, which was a molasses-slow pace, a dip into the fourth inning and a departure with two out and his team trailing 1-0. Seriously, for a guy who had worked only seven innings over the past two-and-a-half weeks, it wasn’t like anybody expected a Mona Lisa.

From Kershaw, yes. The Dodgers ask and ask and ask.


“I like our chances to win and push this to a Game 7,” Dodgers All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. “We had the same situation against Washington, and we took care of it.”

As the Dodgers prepared to charter to Chicago on Friday, they weren’t exactly thrilled that they had let the lead in this NLCS slip away. But they weren’t exactly overly concerned, either.

“First of all, your fly is open,” Gonzalez quipped in response to a person who asked him one of the first questions.

And, darned if Gonzalez’s observational skills weren’t impeccable.

“We’ve won two games in a row before,” Gonzalez continued. “It’s nothing we can’t do Saturday and Sunday.”

Besides, the Dodgers already know what to expect when they arrive at Wrigley Field after splitting Games 1 and 2 there last weekend.

“Same thing we had in Games 1 and 2,” Gonzalez said. “They can’t put more people in the stands. They can’t cheer any louder.

“It’s not like it’s a loud stadium.”

Besides, while the Cubs’ path to the World Series still must run right smack through Kershaw and Hill, the Dodgers can be thankful they no longer have to face Lester. In four starts against the Dodgers this season, Lester produced a stunning 0.96 ERA: 28 innings, three runs, 16 hits, 25 strikeouts and only four walks.

The $155 million the Cubs spent on Lester may be the best money they’ve spent since Harry Caray’s expense account: In dominating the Dodgers over seven innings in Game 5, Lester lowered his career playoff ERA to 2.50 in 119 innings pitched. And this postseason, he’s surrendered only two runs in 21 innings over three starts.

Part of the Dodgers’ strategy against Lester was to bunt, run and make him throw the ball. It’s no secret he has difficulty throwing accurately to first base. Yet after Enrique Hernandez walked on four pitches to start the bottom of the first, and after he took as big a lead as you’ll ever see at first base, dancing, taunting…he didn’t attempt to steal.

“I was trying to get into his head and get J.T. [Justin Turner] a good pitch to hit,” Hernandez explained. “He threw four straight balls to me that were not even close to the strike zone.

“If I tried to steal and was thrown out at second base, it would give him a break.”

The Dodgers’ lack of aggression cost them.

And it shined the spotlight right back at Kershaw, who will pitch Saturday on an extra day’s rest. There was some discussion regarding whether the Dodgers should have started him on short rest in Game 5, but they declined because Kershaw had pitched four times (including the relief appearance) in a 10-day span through his seven shutout innings against the Cubs on Sunday night in Chicago.

The Dodgers would’ve risked riding him too hard.

And besides, somebody else had to pitch at some point. They can’t start Kershaw and Hill all seven games.

So his plan is to show up at Dodger Stadium early Friday and get in his regular between-starts work before the team charter departs for Chicago.

Then, you figure, the next step in the plan is to show up Saturday night in Wrigley dressed in his usual superhero garb.

His degree of difficulty continues to skyrocket, the harder the Dodgers lean on him and the more opposing hitters see him.

“Pitchers definitely don’t have an advantage,” Kershaw said of facing the Cubs a second time since Sunday. “I don’t know if the hitters have an advantage. But pitchers, the more you see somebody, the more familiar you get with them. I mean, that’s true, for sure.

“So I don’t think there’s anything that you do to counteract it. I said this the other day, there’s no secrets in the game right now. There’s so much information. They know every pitch that I throw and every count and every situation. So it’s just a matter of not really focusing on that and just trying to compete every single pitch and execute every single pitch.

“You maybe have less margin for error facing them the second time. Just be better, I guess.”

How much better he can be following his seven-inning, two-hit performance Sunday remains to be seen.

But don’t underestimate what the Dodgers may do if Kershaw pitches them over the valley of death one more time Saturday and into a Game 7 on Sunday.

“This time Kershaw will pitch on zero days’ rest,” Gonzalez said, smiling broadly.

He was kidding. I think.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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