LOS ANGELES — Early Wednesday evening, either too early or too late depending on one’s perspective and perhaps the color of one’s jersey, in the far left corner of the ballpark, in the dark place between the bleachers on one side and the rising stadium on the other, a familiar figure hastened to a full sweat. His hands high, then the dip and the drive, the long stride, it could only be one. A man in a lime green jacket held the gate. So to the field came Clayton Kershaw on a lope, hands at his waist. He walked the last bit, his left hand curled, as ever, in a loose fist. He hoisted his pants with his palms. He took the ball. The people in the ballpark managed a cheer for their guy, because he is forever their guy, and it came out hollow, as if from the depths of a deep, deep hole.
Because they were in a deep, deep hole.
And this will be the conversation. For, in Game 7 of the first World Series to have been contested here in more than a generation, at Dodger Stadium, which had never hosted such a game, Kershaw was spectacular for four innings, and later said he could have gone longer.
“I coulda pitched two innings, I coulda pitched seven,” he said. “Whatever they wanted.”
And it’s not entirely logical in 2017 to hang an entire season, an entire city’s hardball dream, on a pitcher who’d only three days before gritted through 94 pitches, who himself had felt the wrath of the same offense that had just torn through the alternative – Yu Darvish. It is not illogical to entertain the notion of Kershaw in innings one through four or more, rather than three through six. Hindsight, after all, is the old game’s binky, with the five-second rule.
The Houston Astros put five runs on Darvish before Game 7 was an inning-and-a-half along, almost precisely what they’d rendered over five outs in Darvish’s start of Game 3, and for those two reasons and about a million more, their 5-1 win Wednesday night brought their first World Series championship, in their 56th season. They celebrated late into the night, deserving champions.
The what-if here, in a ballpark starved for a championship not won since 1988, was Kershaw, the best uniformed pitcher most of them had ever laid eyes on. Even if he’d not always been his best in the postseason. Even if he’d not been his best three days before. But, perhaps, because he would stand out there on the mound and not scare, which makes nothing certain, and is not at all a measure of outcome, but is not meaningless either.
When the alternative to Kershaw (or whomever) gets five outs one day and another five outs the next time, and a person, say a Dodger fan, gets three more hours to sit in a narrow seat and mull the events of the first half-hour, well, you’re likely to understand any conclusions drawn.
Had Kershaw started Game 7 of the World Series, the Dodgers might’ve lost. They also might’ve had a chance. They might’ve won. Indeed, they might’ve won.
This is where this Game 7 will be played forever here, replayed forever, in this town where 29 years since Gibby, over 47 pitches from Darvish, became 30 years since Gibby.
Darvish at the end of July cost the Dodgers three players and any hour now will be a free agent. And so the willowy right-hander who was to stand behind Kershaw, and who pitched with some resourcefulness in the prior two playoff series, was wholly incompetent in the World Series, as though he were tired or unsure, as though the moment were too big, or the baseballs were too slick, something, and that ended with silence in a clubhouse that expected laughter and revelry.
“I didn’t make adjustments or the stuff that I didn’t have, hurt,” a downcast Darvish said later. “It hurt the team. But this pain is going to stay in me for a while.”
There was not a thought to starting Kershaw. Not by the front office. Not by the coaching staff. Not even, apparently, by Kershaw himself. That sort of two-days-rest heroism is not expected anymore, and in some circles is regarded as reckless. The plan, instead, was for Kershaw and closer Kenley Jansen to cover the final three innings. That assumed a lead. It also assumed some length from Darvish, a pretty darned good pitcher who, it was believed, had earned a mulligan on a rough start. Capable Darvish, the feeling was, would beat the Astros. The matchups, on any paper not printed after Game 3, were advantageous.
Then George Springer doubled on the third pitch of the game. Then, bad luck. First baseman Cody Bellinger overextended on a grounder to his right and threw his feed to Darvish into the Astros’ dugout. A ground ball scored another run. When the inning was over, the Astros had two runs.
The second inning began with a walk to Brian McCann, who’d been down in the count, 0-and-2. Marwin Gonzalez lashed a double to right-center field. Kershaw windmilled his arms and stretched his legs in the bullpen. Two ground balls, neither hit particularly hard, scored a run. The Astros led, 3-0, with a runner at third base, two out, and Springer again coming to the plate. Springer, who’d doubled in the first inning and was on his way to becoming the series MVP. Springer, who, in his two at-bats against Darvish in Game 3, had hit two line drives, one for a double.
At this point, it was obviously too late to start Kershaw.
“Um, you know, I don’t know,” he said afterward about that possibility. “I think looking back, I felt fine. But I don’t think that was in anybody’s thoughts.”
The choices, then, from the Dodgers’ viewpoint were:
A) Allow Darvish the weird first inning and just enough batters into the second to realize they were getting the same Darvish in Game 7 they got in Game 3. Then bring Kershaw into that second-inning mess.
B) Do something – anything – before the Astros had done any more damage, even if it had nothing to do with Kershaw.
C) Let Darvish pitch to Springer.
And that’s what Dave Roberts did.
Four pitches later, Springer hit a fastball into the bleachers, his fifth home run of the series. The Astros led, 5-0. Brandon Morrow was summoned for the final out of the second inning. Darvish was booed on his way to the dugout. Kershaw entered in the third inning. When he was removed for a pinch-hitter with two runners on base in the bottom of the sixth, the Dodgers chasing any kind of offense, Kershaw had pitched four scoreless innings. He’d struck out four batters.
By the ninth inning, four runs back and with nary a hope for three solid hours, fans stood with their hands in their pockets, and watched Charlie Morton finish the Dodgers, one by one. They themselves were left with that whole better-to-have-loved-and-lost thing, and another season gone. A good season. Still gone.
The Dodgers lost because they were not good enough. Best-of-seven series rarely honor the lesser of two teams. Sometimes, they do. Not this time.
And so a weary Kershaw granted that very notion, that the Astros were superior, and he rued a season that was so great for so long, better than anything he’d experienced before.
“It’s extremely difficult,” he said. “I have to continue to remember the team that I’m on. When you think about how close you were, it makes it too difficult.”
He’d loved this team, these 25. He said he was thankful for that. He said it was too soon to consider what it might look like again, say next year, when they up and start all over, give it another run. And, well, that was about it. In the end, he’d taken the ball in a five-run deficit, thrown 43 pitches, and handed it back in a five-run deficit. It’s what they’d asked him to do. It’s what he’d delivered. Then he said goodbye.
“We’re all feeling the same hurt,” he said.
More World Series coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• David Ortiz keeps picking World Series games wrong
• Keith Hernandez drops homophobic joke on air
• Gurriel tries to make amends with Darvish
• Fans show off good-luck charms for Game 7