ARLINGTON, Texas — Can you taste it? Vindication with undertones of elation and relief, mixed with a lingering note of devastation.
It’s that close.
The roof was closed to keep out the demons Sunday night and the baseball fates that have toyed with the Dodgers for 32 years – and Clayton Kershaw for the past eight – took the night off, no doubt exhausted by their shenanigans a night earlier.
Kershaw recorded 15 outs and the Tampa Bay Rays added two more to his total with their baserunning then the Dodgers’ bullpen held fast to win Game 5, 4-2, and move within one game of their first World Series title since the year of Kershaw’s birth.
It is the second time since 1988 – always, everything, since 1988 – the Dodgers have been this close. They were one win away in 2017, too. But the trash cans at Globe Life Field all seem to be accounted for and Yu Darvish will not be admitted for the final act in this drama.
Instead, it is likely to be rookie right-hander Tony Gonsolin who gets the start with the Dodgers on the precipice of a championship. Pitching on just two days’ rest, Gonsolin lasted only 1-1/3 innings in Game 2 against the Rays. He will be on five days’ rest in Game 6.
The Dodgers were so traumatized by their self-immolation in the ninth inning of Game 4 that it took them two whole batters to start scoring runs again in Game 5.
Mookie Betts led off with a ringing double into the left-field corner and Corey Seager followed with an RBI single (part of a stretch of six consecutive plate appearances that ended with him reaching base). Ten pitches into his night, Rays starter Tyler Glasnow was trailing.
The Dodgers added another two-out run on an RBI single by Cody Bellinger. Joc Pederson clobbered a 427-foot home run leading off the second inning and the Dodgers were up 3-0 behind Kershaw.
Making that early lead stand up, though, required an act of stubbornness by the Dodgers.
Going into Game 5, the Dodgers had determined that Kershaw’s outer limit would be 21 or 22 batters faced – not pitches or innings or even outs recorded, batters faced. Through four innings, Kershaw was burning through them.
For only the sixth time in his career (regular season or postseason), Kershaw allowed the leadoff batter to reach base in the first four innings of a start.
He danced out of trouble in the first two innings but an infield single in the third was followed two batters later by a line drive down the right field line by Yandy Diaz. Mookie Betts moved to cut it off but took a flat route towards the ball and it skipped past him to the wall for an RBI triple. Diaz scored when Randy Arozarena singled through the left side of the Dodgers’ infield.
But Arozarena was thrown out trying to steal second as Brandon Lowe struck out, ending the inning for Kershaw.
Back-to-back walks started the fourth inning with the Rays now trailing by just one, 3-2. Kershaw got a pop out and a strikeout (on his way to passing Justin Verlander to become the all-time postseason leader), bringing up Kevin Kiermaier.
The Rays made a calculation and decided Kiermaier’s chances of driving in the run were less than a bold gamble – Manuel Margot tried to steal home, bolting as Kershaw reached his arms high over his head in his delivery.
Kershaw quickly threw home and Margot was called out. But the play was so close it went to replay review where squinting and rewinding and freeze-framing didn’t change the call.
The call was a tipping point in the game. Max Muncy hit a solo home run in the top of the fifth to make it 4-2 and Kershaw retired the side without a baserunner in the bottom of the inning, striking out two and retired the first two batters in the sixth – his sixth and seventh consecutive batters retired.
But Brandon Lowe was batter No. 21 for Kershaw and, sure enough, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts came out of the dugout bound for the pitcher’s mound. So many of Kershaw’s October disasters have happened when (because?) he had been asked to give the Dodgers more than he had.
Not this time. After more conversation than normally precedes a pitching change, Kershaw gave way for Dustin May – and Roberts walked back to the dugout to a cascade of boos from the Dodgers fans in attendance.
“I think we all wanted Kersh to stay in there,” Muncy said. “But they had a plan and they executed it.”
Now – many more of the scars October has inflicted on Kershaw happened when the bullpen behind him poured acid all over the work he had done.
Not this time. Overamped in his previous World Series appearance, May was overpowering this time. He retired five of six batters, giving up a single to Kiermaier in the eighth before handing the ball to Victor Gonzalez with one out.
Gonzalez walked pinch-hitter Mike Brosseau to put the tying runs on base but he retired the two most dangerous hitters in the Rays lineup – Arozarena and Lowe. Returned to center field after his back tightness Saturday, Cody Bellinger came roaring in to snag Lowe’s sinking liner and end the inning.
Having used rookies (May and Gonzalez) to get seven of the game’s most pressure-packed outs, Roberts wasn’t willing to ask another (Brusdar Graterol) to get the last three. Blake Treinen handled the ninth instead.
More to come on this story.