LOS ANGELES — Up close, in a cramped elevator at old Dodger Stadium, you can sense how huge Clayton Kershaw is, one of those athletes whose listed size and weight of 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds does no justice to his thick, intimidating presence, wide shoulders and huge hands. Dodgers slugger Adrian Gonzalez, standing next to him, joking and chuckling after a 6-5 win over the Washington Nationals in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, looks like a normal civilian. No wonder Kershaw is, statistically, on a path to be perhaps the best pitcher ever.
Clayton, the soft-spoken gentleman, even a humanitarian in the offseason, is the 800-pound gorilla every team wants to avoid. The Nats met him on Tuesday and, for the second time in five days, almost beat him and the Dodgers. But once again, as in their 4-3 Game 1 defeat, they couldn’t quite, even though they’ve now hung 15 smoking hits and eight earned runs on him in just 11⅓ innings.
The best measure of how well the Nats have played is that almost their entire lineup is hitting well, maintaining constant pressure, despite facing Kershaw twice and in two games here battling brutal shadows for several innings in both games. In part, Kershaw may still not be sharp after a 10-week trip to the disabled list with a bad back. “If he’s usually A-plus, we may have seen an A or A-minus,” one National said.
But The Claw is gone at last from this series — white T-shirt, baggy gray shorts, lime-tinted sneakers all heading to the parking lot. Goodbye, Clayton.
Hello, Max Scherzer.
The biggest single factor on Thursday in Game 5 at Nationals Park — season on the line, winner advances, loser goes into baseball mourning for the winter — may be, as Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said, “I know Kershaw ain’t pitchin’, thank God.”
In these maniacal five-game heart-attack series between two equally matched, tenacious and experienced teams, there is one strategic core that repeats season after season — and the Nats have it on their side “big time” as Baker might say. If a team takes a two-games-to-one lead, rather than falling behind by that margin, then the leading team doesn’t have to use its ace, its Kershaw, to avoid elimination while the other can’t save its best beast for the biggest stage.
Down a hall, around seven subterranean Dodger Stadium turns, Scherzer, probable winner of the 2016 NL Cy Young award, has little of Kershaw’s physical presence but, instead, gives off an electric intensity. After he lost to Kershaw in Game 1, he said all he wanted was another chance. Now he has it. The Nats and their owners, the Lerners, are paying Scherzer $210 million for many things, but nothing as important as a handful of games like this over seven years. No pressure, Max. But that’s the way it is. Luckily, Scherzer seems to like it.
“Going to be a heck of a ballgame. These are two great teams. Today is a tough loss, especially the way we kept grinding against Kershaw,” Scherzer said, shaking his head in the wake of a mini-October classic in which the Nats rallied from a 5-2 deficit with three runs in an elegantly professional but also gritty seventh inning — all the runs charged to Kershaw to tie the game at 5.
“This will probably be the biggest start of my career. I’ve said that a few times in my life, but I think this will be it. You’re going to get the absolute best out of everybody on both teams.”
Actually, Game 4 brought out the absolute best in both of these very good, though probably not great, ballclubs. Game 5 will have quite a hurdle to match. The Nats scored immediately on the first of Trea Turner’s three singles and an RBI single by Daniel Murphy. In the bottom of the first, that man Gonzalez launched a two-run homer off Joe Ross and the day-long ding-dong battle was on.
Murphy, the Nats’ near batting champ (.347), is putting on another October illustration of how, after a dozen years as a solid unspectacular pro, he has figured out the art of hitting as well as almost anyone in the sport. Only two men have hit four homers off Kershaw in their careers — Adam Dunn and Murphy, who had two off him in last year’s NLCS when he was with the Mets. Now there’s another Murph Owns The Claw chapter with four RBI in Game 4 — two off Kershaw.
Murphy didn’t start a game the last three weeks of the season with a buttocks strain. How could he possibly get his timing back? He’s hitting .417. The oldest Nat, Jayson Werth, seemed tired the last month, but now he is revived, batting .467 with two more hits off Kershaw, plus an RBI on a hit-by-pitch.
“This is what it’s all about,” said Werth, grinning, as he sat alone in one of Dodger Stadium’s labyrinth of corridors. “I feel good about this. We have such good balance in our lineup right now — [Ryan Zimmerman] is hitting [.385], [Turner] is hitting [.333] and Bryce Harper’s taking one good [at-bat] after another. And we’ve got Max going for us.”
Confess: Somewhere in the back of your mind, you didn’t really want to see the Nats clinch their first postseason series in the twilight out here in Chavez Ravine, 3,000 miles away from their home park. Even when they knocked out Kershaw and Murphy’s two-run single off Luis Avilan tied the score at 5 there was some part of you that wanted to be part of a Game 5, either literally by being in the pulsing red-clad sellout crowd, or metaphorically because it was at least being played in your zip code. You wanted . . .
Oh, sorry, you’re sane — so you just wanted the Nats to win Game 4 and be done with the Dodgers. You didn’t really want Blake Treinen, so good all season, to hit rookie Andrew Toles with a pitch when he was ahead in the count with two outs in the eighth inning — just an instant of lost focus on one poor pitch. You didn’t want Treinen to give up singles to Andre Ethier and old Chase Utley to give the Bums the winning run.
You actually didn’t want more tension and drama, more bang for your ticket buck or your nervous system, whichever bears the burden.
Whatever your preference, you’re gettin’ a big fat sloppy kiss of a Game 5 in D.C. whether you wanted it or not.
“If it’s anything like Game 1, it’s going to be such a thrill — everybody going nuts from the first pitch,” Scherzer said. “Our fans really brought it. I can only imagine the atmosphere going into Game 5.”
That’s all fine and good. Just so long as the atmosphere coming out of Game 5 is very, very different.