Before the game, this was Dave Roberts’s assessment of Clayton Kershaw’s availability, even for one out.
“No,” Roberts said. “Absolutely not.”
He should know. He’s the manager.
But this is Roberts’s first year with the Los Angeles Dodgers, his first year with Kershaw. Rick Honeycutt has been his pitching coach his entire major-league career. He has a better feel.
“I just think, after coming off three days’ rest, and being in that game, and going [110 pitches] that he threw,” Honeycutt said, “in my mind, it’s like: No way.”
This moment, this historic moment, was both conceived and executed by Kershaw himself. He needed Honeycutt’s approval and Roberts’s willingness. But Clayton Kershaw’s appearance at the end of the fifth and deciding game of the Dodgers’ National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals would never have happened if Clayton Kershaw hadn’t decided — after throwing 211 pitches over the previous six days — that he wanted to throw more.
“I kind of knew all along,” Kershaw said, “that I would have Murphy.”
The Murphy in question is Daniel, and he is an MVP candidate.
“He had one of the best years I’ve ever seen,” Nationals left fielder Jayson Werth said of the second baseman. “That’s the guy you want up in that spot.”
About the spot: The Dodgers led, 4-3, entering the ninth inning. This is the territory of Kenley Jansen, their enormous and effective closer. And, indeed, Jansen stood on the mound.
The issue: He also stood on the mound at the end of the seventh, and through the entire eighth. Once, five-and-a-half years ago, he had thrown 42 pitches in an outing. When the ninth began, Jansen had already thrown 37. After he struck out Trea Turner and walked Bryce Harper — the tying run — he had thrown 45. After he walked Werth — the lead run — he had thrown 51.
Jansen’s appearance in the seventh is what led Kershaw to concoct this crazy idea in the first place.
“I don’t think Kenley’s ever done a six-out save, let alone a nine-out save,” Kershaw said. “He threw 20 pitches in that seventh inning, and I just said, ‘I’m going to go get loose, see how I feel and I’ll let you know. But I might be able to do this.’”
The “might” comes not only because he threw 110 pitches in Tuesday’s fourth game of the series — on short rest, mind you — and not only because he opened the series by throwing 101 in Game 1, but because he missed two months of this season with a back injury.
“And then here he is,” Honeycutt said. “He’s like, basically adamant.”
Kershaw has won three Cy Young Awards. He has won an MVP. He has been an all-star six straight seasons. There is no one better at throwing a baseball 60 feet, 6 inches. If he is adamant, he gets a chance.
“The adrenaline rush was pretty good right there,” Kershaw said.
So that’s the spot: Harper on second, Werth on first, one out, and Murphy up. Last year, when he was a Met, Murphy homered twice off Kershaw in the division series, a division series the Dodgers lost in five games. He came a hare’s breath from winning a batting title. He was the best free agent signing of last offseason. He led the NL in slugging percentage and OPS. He has transformed himself from diamond rat to all-star. And he entered the at-bat against Kershaw 1 for 2 with two walks for the night, 7 for 15 for the series.
“Pretty good guy to have up,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.
Pitching from the stretch, Kershaw started Murphy with a fastball. He took it, barely inside. Ball one.
“I wanted to get a pitch in my zone and get my ‘A’ swing off,” Murphy said. It was the approach he took for each of his 582 plate appearances this season. No different here.
Ahead in the count, Murphy figured he could look for another fastball. He got it.
“I missed my spot, honestly,” Kershaw said.
“I got a pitch middle-in, it felt like,” Murphy said. “And he just beat me to the spot. I thought I probably could have cheated a little bit more right there.”
By cheat, Murphy meant he could have pounced on that fastball, which was indeed on the inside part of the plate, but on it. It is a pitch he has driven in the past. He did not drive it. He popped it up to second.
“He beat me to the spot,” Murphy said. “It’s a bit frustrating right now.”
From that point, there were only formalities for Kershaw to put the questions about his October fortitude — silly questions, they were, in a way — because the hitter who remained was Wilmer Difo, a 24-year-old reserve who has 69 major league at-bats. Kershaw carved him up, striking him out on five pitches, then standing in the center of the diamond with his arms skyward, a position even the people with the most intimate knowledge of the Dodgers could not have envisioned.
“We talked through so many different scenarios before the game, so everything felt normal — until those last two outs,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers president of baseball operations. “That was a little bit off-script.”
Not for Kershaw. He had the pen. He moved the cursor. He wrote it. And the Dodgers are in the National League Championship Series because they allowed him to do it.