LOS ANGELES – If this was it, if Clayton Kershaw never pitches another game for the Los Angeles Dodgers, two images will forever define his time here.
One will be of him four years ago, standing erect on the Dodger Stadium mound with his arms raised straight up after registering the final out of a no-hitter.
The other will be him of bent over, his back to the home plate and his hands on his knees, as a baseball he threw an instant earlier soared over the outfield wall. Kershaw struck that pose Sunday night, just as he did in the World Series in last year and perhaps in a couple of other Octobers before that. By now, his moments of postseason anguish blend together.
Once again, the greatest pitcher of his generation failed to grasp the World Series championship that has eluded his otherwise spectacular career.
Kershaw lost his second game of this World Series, which was won by the Boston Red Sox, four games to one. He pitched the first seven innings of the 5-1 defeat at Dodger Stadium, allowing four runs on three homers.
The ending was familiar, except this didn’t feel like any of his previous failures. This felt more conclusive. This felt like the end of an era.
Part of that was because there is a very real chance he won’t be on this team next year. Kershaw has a provision in his contract that grants him the right to void the two remaining years on his contract and become a free agent. His understanding was that he had three days to decide.
“I haven’t made the decision yet,” Kershaw said.
What he did say was that he expected to speak to the Dodgers in the three-day window about the possibility of extending his contract, which guarantees him $65 million over the following two years.
“I think we’ll have some conversations, for sure,” he said.
But it’s not only his possible entry into the open market that has marked the passage of time. It’s how he pitched, not only Sunday, but this entire season.
He rarely missed bats. His fastball was down in the 90-91 mph range, not much faster than his slider.
Even as he was slowed by injuries in recent years, he still resembled the old-school workhorse he was when he was younger, the indomitable force who used to pitch 230-plus innings over 30-something starts in the regular season and demand to take the mound on three-days’ rest in the playoffs. Not this year. He finished the regular season with a 9-5 record and 2.73 earned-run average, but looked significantly diminished. At best, he was a pitcher still in the process of adapting to a newfound reality.
Kershaw can return next year – the guess here is the Dodgers will extend his contract by a couple of years – but the version of Kershaw in his physical prime won’t. And in this era of analytics and bullpenning and not allowing the starter to face a lineup for a third time, the Dodgers may very well never produce another pitcher like that again.
So Game 5 was a farewell. And like most endings in sports, it was brutal. In the first, Kershaw threw a 91-mph fastball to Steve Pearce on the outer half of the plate that was deposited into the left-field pavilion for a two-run home run.
More than the pitch to Pearce, Kershaw lamented the slider that Andrew Benintendi singled in the previous at-bat. Kershaw was ahead in the count against Benintendi, 0-2.
“You’ve got to get that slider in the dirt,” Kershaw said. “He didn’t hit it hard, but he shouldn’t be able to make contact on a 0-2 slider. I left that one up. That’s what costs you. The solo homer in the first, you can deal with that one.”
The home run Red Sox starter David Price gave up to David Freese in the first inning, Kershaw pointed out, was a solo home run.
And that was why Kershaw and the Dodgers played with a 2-1 deficit for the majority of the night. From the start of the second inning to the end of the fifth, Kershaw faced the minimum number of hitters. Price was also in control, however, as he allowed only three hits over seven innings.
The only time the Dodgers seriously threatened Price was with one out in the third inning when right fielder J.D. Martinez lost a fly ball by Freese in the lights. The ball dropped on the edge of the warning track and Freese was gifted a triple, but Justin Turner and Enrique Hernandez failed to drive him in.
“David pitched a great game and I got outpitched,” Kershaw conceded.
In the sixth, Kershaw served up a solo home run to Mookie Betts that extended the Red Sox’s lead to 3-1. That was the blast that made him double over.
He gave up another home run in the seventh inning, this one to J.D. Martinez. The Dodgers now trailed, 4-1. The inning was the last Kershaw pitched for the Dodgers in this game, maybe ever.
His final line: Seven innings, seven hits, four runs, five strikeouts, no walks. He threw 92 pitches, 66 of them for strikes.
“Whatever happens, happens,” closer Kenley Jansen said. “This is a business. At the end of the day, he just has to see what’s good for his family. Hopefully, for me, he will be here next year.”
Kershaw has appeared in 30 playoff games, including 24 starts, over eight separate postseasons. He is 9-10 with a 4.32 earned-run average.
Jansen downplayed the unremarkable numbers.
“He never gives up,” Jansen said. “I’m proud of Kersh, how he went about his business to help his team win ballgames.”
And when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts addressed his players after the loss, he mentioned Kershaw by name.
“Wearing this jersey, Clayton exemplifies what it is to be a Dodger and to be a man of character,” Roberts said.
So while most observers picture Kershaw raising his arms after no-hitting the Colorado Rockies or slumping over in response to giving up a home run in the playoffs, those closest to him probably imagine something else when they think of him. Like his intensity on game days. Or how he punished himself in the weight room. Or how he ran almost every day in the outfield before many of his teammates arrived at the stadium.