CHICAGO — When this last happened, Clayton Kershaw was seven months old, so he has no firsthand memory of what transpired then. But when you wear the uniform of the Los Angeles Dodgers, history follows you, even as you pursue it yourself. So the ghosts of the 1988 Dodgers — Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershiser and the rest — stalked Kershaw. Yes, there were Robinson and Koufax and the Hall of Famers whose images flicker from even further back. But the 1988 Dodgers, those were the guys the 40-somthings in Hollywood grew up rooting for. Those were the guys Kershaw had to try to replace.
"A lot of us weren't around in '88," Dodgers General Manager Farhan Zaidi said. "But that doesn't stop people from reminding us. . . . We're well aware of the date."
On Thursday night at Wrigley Field, Kershaw took the long, gun-slinging stride of a Texan — the Texan he is — kicked open that saloon door, finally, and established a new date: 2017. In a position he had never been before — with both the ball and a chance to pitch the Dodgers into the World Series — Kershaw delivered the backbone of an 11-1 lambasting of the poor Chicago Cubs, who got the ace lefty at his best, who got the Dodgers at their best, who were flat rolled over with help from three home runs from utility man Enrique Hernandez.
"Each and every game," said Andrew Friedman, the team's president of baseball operations, "has had a different hero."
The glee in the Dodgers' celebration showed how little they cared who it was Thursday or who it might be next week. As long as it's someone. The Dodgers' victory finished off the National League Championship Series in five games, dethroned the defending champions, reinforced Los Angeles as the best team in baseball over the entirety of the season — and won the Dodgers their first pennant since Kershaw was in diapers. He has three Cy Young Awards. None mean what Thursday meant to him.
"It means everything," Kershaw said in a delirious Dodgers celebration room, his hair soaked with beer and champagne. "It's why you play this game. All the other stuff, all the individual stuff is great, and I'll look back on it when I retire.
"But people don't remember that stuff. People remember people that win the World Series. This is a really special moment for me, and hopefully with four more wins, it's even more special."
Because Kershaw has been the centerpiece of this generation of Dodgers, because he is the constant in their run of five straight division titles, he should take the longest, deepest breath, smile the widest grin and exhale most thoroughly. His six-inning, three-hit, one-run performance might not have been his most dominant. But it will forever show that when an ace was needed, an ace showed up. He pushed these modern-day Dodgers through a barrier they had never felled before.
"No one — no one — that I've ever met works harder behind the scenes than Clayton does," said third baseman Justin Turner, named the MVP of the series.
But this dismantling of the Cubs, it came from all angles and involved almost all the Dodgers, who had 11 hits and nine runs by the fourth inning. Hernandez, one of several Dodgers who can play — and play effectively — all over the field, belted home runs on each of the first two pitches he saw, the second a third-inning grand slam that broke the game open — en route to seven RBI.
And the Dodgers showed the complete nature of their roster by rolling out their bullpen, suddenly the most trustworthy in the game. Converted starter Kenta Maeda, right-hander Brandon Morrow and untouchable closer Kenley Jansen worked the last three frames without incident. Over the five games, the Cubs never scored a run against Los Angeles relievers, against whom they went — get this — 4 for 50 (.080).
So this was, in fact, total domination. The Dodgers' 104-win season was marred by a bizarre stretch in which they lost 16 times in 17 games straddling August and September. But they blew away Arizona in the division series, a sweep in which there was never any doubt. And against the Cubs, they were relentless in absolutely suffocating what is normally among the game's most dangerous lineups. Chicago's hit totals, game by game: four, three, eight, five and four. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs' best two hitters, went 5 for 37 (.135) in the series. The Dodgers have thus outscored their playoff opponents 48-19.
"We were the best team all year long," Manager Dave Roberts said. "These guys over there — they believed."
That belief began right here at Wrigley, where last fall, Kershaw was thumped in the sixth game of the NLCS — seven hits and five runs in five innings — and the Dodgers had to endure the Cubs' pennant-winning celebration. Worse, when spring arrived, it was the Dodgers who opened the season at Wrigley. A quirk, to be sure, but they had to watch the Cubs receive their World Series rings.
That day, Friedman worked his way through the clubhouse, curious as to how players would take in that scene. Some chose to watch from the dugout. Some just stayed in the clubhouse.
"But the common theme was," Friedman said, "how much they wanted for our home opener next year — for the visiting team to experience the same thing."
Now they have a chance. The Dodgers will host Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium regardless of their opponent, be it the New York Yankees or the Houston Astros. And it's highly likely that the starting pitcher that night will be none other than Kershaw, who needed only 89 pitches in Game 5 and will be on his regular four days' rest.
In the din Thursday night, that seemed like more than four days away.
"This is what we work so hard for," Kershaw said. "You got to celebrate hard. To be able to get to the World Series, that's the second-best thing you can do."
The best is to win it, of course. That's what the 1988 team did. That's what Gibson and Hershiser, Jackie Robinson and Sandy Koufax, Steve Garvey and Tommy Lasorda — that's what they all did. Now the ghosts have company. The Dodgers are back in the World Series.