CHICAGO -- Maybe it had to happen this way. Maybe for the Los Angeles Dodgers to finally get over that hump to win another National League pennant, it has to be Clayton Kershaw to push them over the top.
The Dodgers certainly had their chances to put a bow on the National League Championship Series on Wednesday, a 3-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs before a jubilant gathering at Wrigley Field. They had their chances right up to the end, when Cody Bellinger stepped to the plate as the potential go-ahead run and grounded into a game-ending double play.
"We were one pitch away from tying the game or taking the lead," Bellinger said. "That's just how it goes down sometimes."
Let's face it. The odds were long that the Dodgers were going to traverse the postseason unscathed. All it takes is to run into one hot pitcher, and that's largely what happened in Game 4. Jake Arrieta was sharp and efficient from the outset, save for a line-shot homer that Bellinger hit off the right-field scoreboard in the third.
"We knew sweeping the Cubs would be a hard task to do," Bellinger said. "They have a good lineup and good pitching. Arrieta was on his game today."
Dodgers lefty Alex Wood, pitching for the first time since Sept. 26, was OK during his 4⅔ innings. He gave up only four hits but three of them left the park, all solo shots. Wood struck out seven and said he couldn't get too worked up over the results on a night when the wind was blowing out at the Friendly Confines.
"I thought my stuff was pretty good," Wood said. "Two mistakes early. Solo shots, one a fastball, one a breaking ball. Besides that, I thought my stuff was pretty good."
Now it's Kershaw's turn. After coming up one run short in their first loss of the 2017 playoffs and snapping a franchise record streak of six straight postseason wins, the Dodgers will hand the ball to their long-time ace in Game 5 to slam the door on a Cubs team that has now won five straight win-or-go-home games dating to the 2016 playoffs.
"We're going to be all right," Bellinger said. "We've got the right guy going tomorrow. The guys [in the clubhouse] are the same they've been the whole season."
Thursday's game will be played 361 days after the Dodgers' 2016 pennant bid ended on the same field in the sixth game of last year's NLCS -- another Kershaw start. In that one, Kershaw gave up five runs in five innings during a 5-0 Cubs white-washing that propelled them into a World Series showdown with Cleveland. It was the Dodgers' only loss in Kershaw's past seven postseason starts.
"I wouldn't say that the pressure is on us," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "I think that we're in a pretty good spot. We've got our No. 1 pitcher going tomorrow, and we've got two of the guys at the back end rested. I can't speak to their mindset, but I still like the position we're in."
Kershaw gave up two homers in that season-ending start a year ago, a trend that has continued into this postseason, when he has given up five more homers over two outings. That could be a problem if the wind patterns of the first two games in Chicago continue into Thursday night's contest.
Before the game, Kershaw was asked how he'd handle watching Game 4, knowing that a win would give him his first pennant but also knowing he had a potential start to prepare for.
"It's a tough spot for me, just because I have to prepare to start tomorrow," Kershaw said. "I can't assume we're going to win and then it just so happens I have to pitch. I have to expect to pitch and then be surprised when we win.
"It's a tough spot because obviously I believe in our team and I believe that we can win tonight. But I can't let myself mentally go there. But hopefully -- yeah, hopefully it doesn't work out and I don't have to pitch. But we'll see."
Now, Kershaw knows he has to pitch and in doing so, he gets a chance to avenge himself from last season and put his club in the World Series for the first time during his storied career.
Even in losing Game 4, the Dodgers might have set themselves up nicely in ways that have nothing to do with their future Hall of Famer taking the mound in Game 5.
After six innings of Arrieta dominance, the Dodgers' grind-every-at-bat approach finally took effect, though they drew five walks against Arrieta. But he entered the seventh with just 89 pitches on his clicker and, rolling the way he was, it looked as if Joe Maddon would be able to hand the ball directly from Arrieta to closer Wade Davis.
But the Dodgers ran up Arrieta's pitch count that inning and Maddon had to turn to Brian Duensing, who had to get the last out. It's possible, if unlikely, that had Arrieta breezed through the seventh, he might have pitched into the eighth, but the 22 pitches he threw to get the two outs in his last frame killed that notion.
"We had some good at-bats against them, but really couldn't break through," Roberts said. "It's just a credit to him. He made pitches when he needed to."
Davis came on for the eighth to get the last six outs, but the Dodgers' grinding machine was in full motion. First, Justin Turner hit a bomb to greet Davis, then L.A. drew three walks off the closer, putting the team total at eight. Turner pushed his career postseason OPS to 1.154, a mark bettered in history by only Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Finally, Davis needed 48 pitches to get those six outs, while the Dodgers' primary relievers, Brandon Morrow and Kenley Jansen, got the night off. It was a chore, but the bottom line is that Davis got those six outs the Cubs had to have.
"They're the world champs, and you know they're going to fight to the end," Roberts said. "So today, they did. We got beat today. And I think the thing is you can't win them all. You're not going to win them all."
In theory, Davis' workload puts an extra onus on the Cubs to get to Kershaw early Thursday -- and on Chicago starter Jose Quintana to keep the Dodgers down in those first few innings, as it feels as if the Cubs can't beat the Dodgers in a battle of bullpens. Even in the loss, the Dodgers' relievers put up 3⅓ scoreless innings, running their overall streak to 20, while Davis gave up another homer and labored for the save.
"The more pitches we make him throw, the better off we are in general," Turner said. "No matter who it is. We'll come back tomorrow, execute our game plan and figure out how to win a game."
The fairytale ending for the Dodgers, now that we know Kershaw will take his next turn, would be for their franchise icon, their best pitcher since Sandy Koufax, to strap his club on his back and at last silence all the critics of his postseason performance record.
Yet, we know that's not how this Dodgers team works. Kershaw, effective or not, probably will pass the baton to his bullpen, where a rested Morrow and Jansen wait. Still, the thought of a Kershaw masterpiece is a pretty one to ponder.
Besides, if any Dodgers fan dares look ahead, you can take two additional bits of solace from the way the series has unfolded. First, unlike Octobers past, Kershaw will be taking his turn on normal rest. That might make a difference, even if he's reluctant to admit it.
"I don't really feel any different any postseason," Kershaw said. "I think maybe last year, with the usage, I maybe felt a little bit, towards the end -- tired is not the right word, but maybe just a little bit taxed."
Second, even though he has to pitch Thursday, with a win, Kershaw's next start would come Tuesday in Game 1 of the World Series at Dodger Stadium. He would, once again, be pitching on normal rest.
It all remains tantalizingly close and their manager, a member of the 2004 Red Sox who overcame a 3-0 ALCS deficit, can school them on the possibility of the impossible.
"I think that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Roberts joked before the game. "Teams can't do that anymore. No, it was a special group. It was a very lax group but professional. Obviously we were written off, but we did a good job of trying to focus on that game at hand and not getting ahead of ourselves."
After the game, as the Dodgers yawned their way through a press grilling meant to uncover hidden signs of repressed panic, Kershaw could be found loitering in the passageway at the bottom of the steps leading to the visitors clubhouse. In his arms, he held his young daughter, swaying and smiling and cooing.
There weren't signs of panic in that scene, and you wouldn't expect there to be. It's all still right there for Kershaw and the Dodgers, but even though he's rested and ready, don't tell Kershaw that he's relaxed.
"Relaxing is probably not the right word," Kershaw said. "[The full rest] is probably just a testament to the team we have more than anything.
"The way we've been playing and how everybody has been able to contribute and everybody has been stepping up. There's been no need to do that, which is a good luxury to have. But I wouldn't say relaxing by any means."