CHICAGO — Here came the manager. Out of the corner of his eye, from his spot behind home plate, Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal spied Dave Roberts come up the dugout steps and out onto the Wrigley Field grass. He was on his way toward the mound.

So Grandal followed his instincts. He headed to the mound himself, jogging briskly, one goal in mind: get to Clayton Kershaw before Roberts did.

There were two out, one on, bottom of the seventh and the Dodgers were in Code Red. They led 1-0, but it was a fragile 1-0, and how much more was fair to ask of Kershaw, anyway?

In the Chicago Cubs’ on-deck circle, Javier Baez was swinging his big bat, ready to author another chapter in his ongoing best-seller of an October.

“No way you’re coming out of this game,” Grandal told Kershaw.

The catcher was assessing things as this contest rolled along, and right here, right now, with the Dodgers ace at only 82 pitches and his slider still wicked, Grandal knew Kershaw had more to give.

“Has Doc signaled to the bullpen?” asked Kershaw, who hadn’t seen Roberts when he first emerged from the dugout.

“No,” Grandal said. “He hasn’t.”

It was right about then that Roberts’ cleats crunched into the dirt on the mound, signaling his arrival, and the discussion began. “I can get Baez,” Kershaw told his manager. He was adamant: “I can get him.”

The discussion was brief. Roberts turned around and headed back to the dugout.

Two pitches and one stomach-dropping moment later, Joc Pederson had hauled in Baez’s drive to the deepest part of center field. Kenley Jansen entered for a drama-free six-out save, and the Dodgers carefully packed their 1-0 victory and a dead-even National League Championship Series for the flight home to Los Angeles and Game 3 on Tuesday night.

To watch them lean on Kershaw is to wonder how much more weight his creaky back can take before it starts screaming in rebellion.

Yet to see Kershaw respond the way so few others are capable of responding—Madison Bumgarner, and then who?—is to have an up-close view of another of nature’s wonders.

Four times over the past 10 days, the Dodgers had handed him the ball and asked him to keep their World Series hopes alive. There was his Game 1 start against the Washington Nationals in the division series on Oct. 7. There was his short-rest, do-or-die start in Game 4 against Washington on Oct. 11. There was his dramatic Game 5 entrance as a closer two days after that.

And then there was Sunday night in Wrigley Field.

Kershaw’s biggest concern going in was one that is endemic to every single starting pitcher in the game: As much as he wanted the ball Thursday in Washington, he wondered how the abnormal schedule might affect him in Game 2 in Chicago.

“My last seven or eight days have been a little different, so just kind of going into the unexpected,” he said. “That was more of my concern than workload or anything like that.”

His previous October frustrations have been examined to the point the Dodgers have a hair trigger when the subject comes up. They are quick to point out that his postseason numbers coming into this October, 2-6 with a 4.59 ERA in 13 appearances (10 starts), are skewed and not all his fault.

Many of the numbers confirm that as truth. In particular, the bullpen has betrayed him over the years to a horrific degree; of the 15 baserunners the bullpen has inherited from Kershaw over his postseason starts, it has allowed eight to score. A grand total of 53 percent. And as August Fagerstrom pointed out in an excellent FanGraphs study, Kershaw has been charged with 41 earned runs in his postseason career, and he was sitting in the dugout when 20 percent of those scored.

“I’ve never bought into the narrative,” Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, said in a happy clubhouse. “There’s no other pitcher I’d rather have on the mound, whether it’s February, March, May, October or November.”

When he arrived on the mound on an unusually warm October evening, it didn’t take long for Roberts to concur with Friedman.

Kershaw made his case—strongly. The manager listened.

“I had every intent to go out there and get him and go to Kenley,” Roberts said. “But as I went out there, looked him in the eye and [saw] the confidence Clayton had to get the hitter, I just went with my gut and said, ‘We can get this guy.’

“And at that point in time, that’s all I needed to hear.”

The seventh had started with a four-pitch walk to Cubs slugger Anthony Rizzo, who has been quiet enough this postseason that Chicago is beginning to get concerned. But then Kershaw froze Ben Zobrist with a 93 mph fastball for a called third strike and then induced a pop to left field from Addison Russell, another Cub whose bat has gone silent.

On the second pitch after the meeting, Baez sunk his teeth into another 93 mph fastball so savagely that Kershaw thought it was curtains.

“I did,” he said. “I thought it was out for sure. He hit it pretty good.

“And yeah, after Dave came out and I kind of talked my way into it, he probably was not going to trust me again after that.”

From his vantage point at second base, Chase Utley did not think the ball was going out. But he did think it was going over Pederson’s head, which would have given Rizzo plenty of time to score from first, tie the game and then, yes, ruin another of Kershaw’s October nights.

In the stands, Friedman did not think the ball was going out because of its trajectory. But as he talked in the clubhouse afterward, he paused at one point mid-sentence. He was staring at the clubhouse flat-screen television, which was showing the highlights of the just-completed game.

“Sorry,” Friedman said. “I was watching Baez—that just scared me again.”

If the rest of this series is scripted anything like these first two games, it would not be the last time Friedman, Kershaw, Cubs manager Joe Maddon or anyone else finds their hearts skipping a few beats. Over two nights in Chicago, as the Cubs chase their first World Series title in 108 years and the Dodgers gun for their first Fall Classic appearance in 28 years, every pitch has mattered. Every inning has been taut. Every strategic decision is dissected.

Well aware of Kershaw’s recent workload and knowing how hard the Dodgers are leaning on him, the Cubs were curious to see just how well he would hold up in Game 2. Specifically, before the game, Maddon had cited his velocity and location, two telltale signs as to whether he was fatigued.

“It became apparent that he did not want to throw his curveball, I thought, and that the slider was just hit or miss for him,” Maddon said. “He pitched with his fastball, and he pitched to good spots.”

He mowed down the first 14 Cubs in order, with Baez finally breaking the perfect game with a base hit in the fifth. There wasn’t much room for error for Kershaw—Adrian Gonzalez’s solo homer in the second provided the slim margin—but that’s all he needed.

“It’s fun when you win, so yeah, I’m enjoying it right now,” Kershaw said. “When you’re in the moment, you’re just trying to constantly stop runs, preventing runs.”

That he’s done in October—and at the most opportune times. Plus, he’s done it while breaking in a new catcher, Grandal, after the club traded away his favorite catcher, A.J. Ellis, in August.

Grandal noted that in their previous couple of games together, they changed signs a few times and were adjusting to each other. On Sunday night, there was none of that.

“We got it going,” the catcher noted, adding that in that meeting on the mound, everybody, including the infielders, was on the same page about Kershaw remaining in the game.

You can say whatever you want about Kershaw’s previous Octobers, his postseason numbers and anything else, but the ace remains to these Dodgers what the sun is to Los Angeles.

“Being around here the past two years, seeing how he prepares, knowing what kind of competitor he is, looking ahead, I have more confidence in him than anybody in baseball,” Friedman said.

As for what Kershaw has crammed into these past 10 days, Friedman just shook his head.

“It should surprise me, but it doesn’t,” he said. “I feel like I’m being too flippant about it.”

In the manager’s office, the feeling is the same.

“I’ve said it time and time again: He’s the best pitcher on the planet,” Roberts said. “I’ll take him any day. As would 29 other managers.”


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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