Well before he took the mound Sunday night, Clayton Kershaw was hanging darkly over the National League Championship Series for the Cubs. The idea of the Dodgers ace, the regular-season idea of him, at least, was lurking, skulking and quite possibly cackling over the Cubs’ grand plan for world domination.
Kershaw pitched fabulously in Game 2 at Wrigley Field, could pitch Game 5 in Los Angeles and might be available in some capacity for Game 7, *if necessary and *if the sky is falling for the Cubs.
He is a possible boogeyman in this series, and he looked every bit of it Sunday in a 1-0 Dodgers’ victory that tied the series at a game apiece. That herky-jerky motion and those four disparate pitches had hitters baffled too often. The Cubs didn’t get a hit until the fifth inning. You don’t want to dismiss such dominance as inconsequential, but it really was all prelude. Everyone was tapping a foot impatiently to see if Clayton Kershaw, regular-season killer, would revert to Clayton Kershaw, postseason pacifist.
Going into Sunday’s game, he had a 3-6 career playoff record. That included a 0-3 record and a 7.23 earned-run average in the NLCS. Not what you’d expect from a three-time Cy Young winner.
He gave up two hits over seven innings before his night was done. It might not have been as loud as Miguel Montero’s grand slam in Game 1, but it was loud enough.
Talk to two different Cubs hitters and hear two different explanations about what went wrong at the plate in Game 2. That’s how good, and confusing, Kershaw was Sunday.
“You just know that he’s going to come in and throw strikes,’’ first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “You’re going to sit back and be 0-2 right away if that’s the case, so you’ve got to be ready to hit.’’
“We just chased a lot of pitches,’’ second baseman Javy Baez said. “I honestly thought with him pitching with a couple days’ rest, he wasn’t going to be that nasty. Obviously, he came ready for us.’’
Kershaw started Game 4 of the division series against the Nationals, throwing 110 pitches, then came back two days later to get the save in Game 5 and propel the Dodgers into the NLCS. And now here he was three days after that, hoping to change the complexion of the championship series with a good outing. The Cubs were hoping for a tired pitcher. They got power and adrenaline.
Kershaw struck out Baez on a 95 m.p.h. fastball in the second inning, so, no, arm fatigue didn’t look like it was going to be an issue. Rizzo got ahold of a pitch in the fourth but it was foul. Ben Zobrist hit one hard in the fifth, but Dodgers left fielder Andrew Toles caught it on the warning track.
Baez broke up the no-hitter with a two-out single. Willson Conteras followed with a single up the middle. The crowd of 42,384 started to get ideas. But then light-hitting Jason Heyward ended the inning with a pop-out to third. Perhaps you saw that coming.
Baez ripped a Kershaw pitch to deep center field in the seventh, but it died on the warning track. That after Kershaw had persuaded Dodgers manager Dave Roberts to keep him in for one more batter. Good stuff.
It was a terrific pitching duel, with Adrian Gonzalez’ solo homer off the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks in the second the difference.
“The way Hendricks was throwing, it was one of those games where one pitch could have been the deciding factor,’’ Kershaw said.
Kershaw was 12-4 with a 1.69 earned-run average in the regular season. He pitched like that Sunday. He could pitch like that again in this series. And again.
“Anytime you get to face a pitcher back-to-back times, it’s an advantage to the hitters,’’ Rizzo said. “The more you get to see a guy, the more you can make adjustments in the box. Then again, it’s totally different in the playoffs.’’
He knows. He’s one-for-23 so far in the postseason.