But the sense of peace and tranquility that oozed from Kershaw’s words and body language may have stemmed from another significant transformation, one that resides completely in his professional realm: Sunday night may very well have marked the moment he shed an old, familiar persona — the hangdog symbol of a generation of Dodgers postseason failures — and tried on a new one.
From appearances, it almost certainly would be a great fit.
Kershaw’s job in this World Series is essentially done. After pitching the Dodgers to a 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5, putting them within one victory of their first championship in 32 years, he is likely to be nothing more than a bystander for Tuesday night’s Game 6, or at best a break-in-case-of-emergency option out of their bullpen, if necessary, for Game 7 on Wednesday night.
In baseball, you aren’t supposed to acknowledge the hopeful gaze into the future, the fully human instinct to look beyond today and wonder what tomorrow’s salvation might feel like. But Kershaw, who puts his full humanity on public display like few other superstars in the game, has regularly violated the edict in the past few days.
“It’s not easy when you’ve been working so long and so hard for one goal, and it’s getting closer and closer with each win,” said Kershaw, 32. “It’s getting harder not to think about the endgame and what that may be like.”
Kershaw’s 2020 farewell may not have looked like much on the surface — 5⅔ innings, two earned runs and a couple hours’ worth of gutsy pitches and narrow escapes — but that snapshot, when zoomed out to include his Game 1 win five days earlier, and even further out, his body of work from the entire month, should at the very least leave behind the tired narrative that he can’t win in October.
This was the 20th postseason series Kershaw has pitched in across a Hall-of-Fame-caliber, 13-year career, but the first in which he has notched two wins. In all, he is 4-1 with a 2.93 ERA this month. His only postseason with a lower ERA was 2015, when he pitched twice against the New York Mets in the division series — which the Dodgers lost — winning once and losing once while posting a 2.63. His career postseason record is back above water at 13-12. His ERA, 4.43 at the start of this postseason, is down to 4.19.
When the socially distanced crowd of 11,437 at Globe Life Field booed Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts for removing Kershaw in the sixth inning — at a point in the game, with Kershaw having faced 21 batters, that was agreed to in advance — it was understandable but also a refreshing reminder of how many times the opposite had happened.
This time of year, destruction typically rains down upon the Dodgers when Kershaw is left in for one batter too many or deployed one time too many. They are rarely punished for taking him out one batter too soon or keeping him sidelined between regular starts. They are seeing that this postseason, the first of his career that has not included a start on short rest or a relief appearance.
“To his credit, he would do whatever we ask,” Roberts said of the decision to keep Kershaw on a more regular schedule this postseason. “I just don’t know many pitchers that will do that. But in this case, we’ve used him more conventional. And he’s responded really well. We’re really lucky to have him. And I couldn’t be happier that the postseason he’s had mirrors who he is as a pitcher.”
Now, it is up to Kershaw’s teammates to complete the renovation of Kershaw’s legacy. Nobody has pitched as many innings (189) or notched as many wins (13) without claiming at least one championship. To every accolade in his career, there is an implied, boldfaced, all-caps “but.” He is one of 10 pitchers to have won at least three Cy Young Awards but the only one without a ring.
Rookie Tony Gonsolin — and the parade of relievers that is sure to follow him to the mound — will get the first shot to clinch, facing Tampa Bay lefty Blake Snell in Game 6. If the Dodgers lose that one, they have their firewall, ace right-hander Walker Buehler, prepared to start on five days’ rest in Game 7.
“We need to win one more game,” Kershaw said after Game 5, doing his best to tamp down the anticipation. “I’m going to keep it together for one more game.”
Nobody in baseball bares their soul like Kershaw, whether self-flagellating following another October mound meltdown — “Everything people say is true right now about the postseason,” he famously said a year ago after blowing a lead in Game 5 of the division series to the Washington Nationals — or putting himself forward, as he did this June, to support “Black brothers and sisters” experiencing injustice.
“I want to listen, I want to learn, I want to do better and be different. I want my kids to be different,” Kershaw wrote in a post on social media. “Black lives matter and I am committed to taking a stand and affecting change — starting with myself.”
Kershaw is always accountable after his failures, never giving in to the urge to blame others. We now know the beating he took from the Houston Astros in the 2017 World Series, when they battered him in a Game 5 start and then again in a Game 7 relief appearance — and laying off a suspicious number of his finest sliders — may have been because they knew what pitches were coming. We wonder what might have happened had Roberts not left him in to face Anthony Rendon (homer) and Juan Soto (homer) in Game 5 of the 2019 division series.
Each October that ends in defeat, he said after the latter, “You realize it’s one less year on your career, one less year that you have a chance to win. You become more grateful every chance you get to win a World Series.”
If and when the final out of the 2020 baseball season makes its way into a Dodger’s glove — bringing to an end this chaotic campaign, shortened and altered by a global pandemic — eyeballs, television cameras and microphones alike will seek out Kershaw amid the teeming masses on the field. He will be easily recognizable, if not from his No. 22 uniform then from the familiar bushy beard and the long locks spilling out of his cap.
But if that moment comes, it won’t be the same Kershaw who steps forward. In those precious seconds and minutes, everything will have changed.