By Andy McCullough
CHICAGO — For the past three weeks, as the Los Angeles Dodgers crawled through these playoffs, Clayton Kershaw acted as a one-man cordon, capable of holding off his opponents and offsetting the mistakes of his teammates. On the final night of the Dodgers’ 2016 season, in a 5-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, he could do neither.
Chicago mauled Kershaw for five runs in five innings. The Dodgers offense never materialized against Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks. And as Wrigley Field swayed in the aftermath, with 42,000 fans howling “Go Cubs Go,” three dozen men in Dodgers uniforms emptied their dugout and prepared for the winter.
For the first time since 1945, the Cubs are headed back to the World Series. For the 28th year in a row, the Dodgers are headed home before the Fall Classic. Their reliance on Kershaw only took them so far.
The Dodgers surged into control of the National League West while Kershaw mended a herniated disk for 10 weeks. But in October, the team reverted to its former state.
Before Saturday, the team was unbeaten in playoff games in which Kershaw appeared and 1-5 in the rest.
Kershaw entered this October with questions about his resiliency in the postseason. He squashed some of those with his performance earlier this week, when he pitched four times in a 10-day span.
Only nine days ago, he stood in the center of Nationals Park with his arms raised aloft. He secured the final two outs of a first-round clincher, and his teammates engulfed him. His face wore a mixture of exhaustion and joy. The postseason had only just begun, and Kershaw would soon remember how fickle it can be.
Before the game, Manager Dave Roberts made no bold proclamations. But he did reveal something that pointed to his optimism. His father, Waymon, and his teenage son, Cole, were in Phoenix, where Cole was playing in a baseball tournament. Both had tickets to fly to Chicago for Game 7.
“A sign of confidence,” Roberts said with a grin, as his team completed batting practice. “I already bought the tickets.”
The real reason to believe would emerge from the dugout a few minutes later. Kershaw ascended the steps and walked into the outfield. He stretched by himself as fans filtered into the bleachers. He had silenced the Cubs for seven innings in Game 2. The Dodgers needed something similar in the sequel.
It was not to be. On the third pitch of the game, Kershaw pumped a slider at the belt. Outfielder Dexter Fowler flicked a line drive down the right-field line. The ball kissed the inside of the paint and bounced over the bricks for a ground-rule double. Giving chase, right fielder Josh Reddick shook his head.
Three pitches later, third baseman Kris Bryant reached across the plate, dug out a low fastball and sent an RBI single into right field. The crowd was already alive, braying Kershaw’s name, elongating the syllables like playground bullies. Now the ballpark shook. It would only get worse.
After five fastballs to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, Kershaw tried a slider. Rizzo hit a drive into the gap between left fielder Andrew Toles and center fielder Joc Pederson. Toles settled underneath it. He raised his glove. At the last moment, as the ball approached the leather, he shifted his eyes to the diamond. He never saw the ball clip his glove and fall to the ground.
Kershaw did. He stuck out his tongue, but managed to shield his dismay. Both runners advanced into scoring position. Bryant scored on a subsequent sacrifice fly by outfielder Ben Zobrist. The torment of the inning lasted 30 pitches.
The elements appeared aligned against the Dodgers. Midway through an at-bat in the second inning, a rogue firework erupted beyond center field as Pederson stood at the plate. Pederson tried to protest the strike that followed from Hendricks. Umpire Ted Barrett offered no relief.
As bombs burst in the night, the Dodgers stepped on their own toes, incapable of avoiding unforced mistakes. The top of the second ended when Reddick was picked off first base. To add some annoyance to the mix: Reddick reached base when second baseman Javier Baez bobbled a groundball. Even when the Cubs made errors, the Dodgers topped them with gaffes of their own.
Reddick’s inattention came with Yasmani Grandal at the plate, and cost the club a chance to tie the game with one swing. That chance would not arise again soon.
For Kershaw, the agony was not limited to the first inning. Shortstop Addison Russell greeted him in the second inning by stinging a leadoff double into the ivy along the left-field wall. With two outs, Kershaw picked up two strikes on Fowler. But he left an 0-2 fastball over the middle, and Fowler pulled it into left field for an RBI single.
Hendricks had given up a hit on the first pitch he threw when Toles roped a single. But Hendricks erased Toles on the next pitch, an 87-mph sinker that Corey Seager bounced into a double play.
Hendricks led the National League in earned-run average this year, and he does not overwhelm his opponents. He thrives on soft contact and pristine command. Earlier in the week, Kershaw compared him to Greg Maddux. Hendricks faced the minimum through seven innings. He departed when Reddick singled in the eighth.
As Hendricks twirled a gem, Kershaw found his evening only worsening. In the bottom of the fourth, he tried to spin a slider aimed at the back foot of catcher Willson Contreras. His aim was not true. The pitch was elevated over the plate. Contreras ripped it over the left-field fence for a solo shot.
Kershaw was toiling without mastery of his weapons. He could not induce swings with his curveball. He could not locate his slider. And he could not fool the Cubs with his fastball. He dropped into a sidearm during the fifth, trying to fool Rizzo with a trick he learned from teammate Rich Hill. Rizzo re-directed the fastball into the bleachers for another solo homer.
Down five, Kershaw left the game on his own accord. He struck out Zobrist for the third out and shuffled toward his dugout. He kept his head down as the ballpark vibrated with noise. He slipped out of sight, his season finished, his legacy still undetermined.