It was a 1-1 count in the top of the fourth inning Wednesday. The Milwaukee Brewers were leading by a run in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, and Kratz was noticeably jumpy. Kershaw's pitch began parallel with his chest and quickly dropped like an anvil, prompting an awkward half-swing and a deep exhale.
It was the type of 12-to-6 curveball that made Kershaw a legend and has so often eluded him in recent years.
Kratz swore he saw something different.
"I think it was a changeup," he said playfully before being informed that Kershaw hardly ever throws one. "Oh, maybe that's why I swung so bad at it."
Kershaw was in vintage form while pitching the Los Angeles Dodgers to a 5-2 victory and a 3-2 lead in the NLCS. He completed seven innings, gave up one run, allowed five baserunners and struck out nine batters -- four more than he recorded in two previous postseason starts combined.
Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes called it "prototypical Kershaw," largely because his trademark off-speed pitches were so effective.
Perhaps motivated by the early start that forced batters to contend with the afternoon shadows, Kershaw threw sliders or curveballs on 67 percent of his pitches, tied for the second-highest percentage in any start of his 11-year career, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Eighty-five percent of his two-strike pitches were breaking balls, and all of his strikeouts came because of them. Seven of those punchouts came on the slider, as did 10 of the 19 swing-and-misses -- but the curveball was a separator. The shape and velocity of the pitch is an especially crucial weapon for Kershaw these days because a fastball that has steadily declined in velocity and a slider that has continually taken on the characteristics of a cutter appear so similar now.
"My fastball and slider are pretty close in speed," Kershaw said. "If I'm able to throw that [curveball] over for strikes, it gives them a different speed and depth to look at. It's definitely important."
Kershaw used to be defined by the big, loopy, over-the-top curveball that offset his devastating fastball-slider combination. It made him nearly unhittable. But the back injuries that have sent him to the disabled list each of the past three seasons have made it increasingly difficult for Kershaw to get over the top on that pitch and throw it effectively.
This start looked like an exception.
Kershaw got eight swing-and-misses on his curveball, just one shy of his career high and three more than his total swing-and-misses just five days earlier. Of the 13 other curveballs he threw, three were called strikes, three went for balls, five were fouled off, and two resulted in groundouts.
Kershaw made Kratz look silly with one that was spiked in the dirt in the fourth, then did the same to strike out Jesus Aguilar and end the sixth.
"That was his signature pitch for a while -- that big curveball," Barnes said. "When he's striking that, and he's mixing sliders, he makes it really tough on hitters. It's a tough pitch to hit."
Kershaw was brilliant through eight shutout innings against the Atlanta Braves in Game 2 of the NL Division Series, but he recorded only nine outs and was charged with five runs in his first encounter with the Brewers in Game 1 of the NLCS.
He remained in the Dodgers' dugout late into Tuesday night, draped in a hoodie and snacking on sunflower seeds until Cody Bellinger slapped a 13th-inning single into right field to end a 5-hour, 15-minute game. When he arrived at Dodger Stadium the following morning, Kershaw felt motivated to pitch deep into the game and compensate for a weary bullpen.
He quickly escaped the first, then watched the Brewers' "starter," Wade Miley, give way to reliever Brandon Woodruff after only one batter, in Craig Counsell's attempt to exploit matchup deficiencies. Woodruff improbably homered off Kershaw in Game 1, which Kershaw jokingly referenced when asked what went through his mind when the change was made.
"I was just thinking that I have to get Woodruff out," he said.
Kershaw didn't. He walked Woodruff with one on and one out in what became a laborious third inning, then allowed an RBI double to Lorenzo Cain. But Kershaw later escaped a bases-loaded jam on a strikeout of Aguilar, his eighth pitch of the at-bat and his 32nd of the inning.
"Once I was able to work out of that, I really just tried to focus on getting the next guy, next guy, next guy," Kershaw said, referencing a mindset from which he rarely strays. "It happened to work out today."
Kershaw finished his start by retiring 13 consecutive batters. Yasiel Puig was going to hit for him in the fifth, but Barnes ripped a run-scoring single past a drawn-in infield immediately before Kershaw's spot, prompting Dodgers manager Dave Roberts to extend his ace's outing.
Kershaw surprisingly came to bat again in the bottom of the seventh -- a decision motivated by his continued dominance, as well as the bullpen's lingering fatigue -- and drew his second walk. The Dodgers, thriving at small ball in ways they hadn't all season, tacked on two additional runs that inning with Kershaw sprinting his way around the bases, prompting the bullpen to finish things off.
The Dodgers -- 10 games below .500 at one point this summer -- are now one win away from returning to the World Series for a second straight year.
"Doesn't really matter how you get here," Kershaw said, "but thankful that we are here."
They're here, mostly, because Kershaw found his stuff again. The slider appeared to possess the depth it used to, giving him the confidence to bury it inside on right-handed hitters. The curveball had the noticeable bite that altered the dynamic. And then there was that one part that never changes.
"You could see the same look that you always see," Roberts said. "There's a determination, and when you get a champion like him that gets hit around a little bit, he's going to respond. And that's what he did today."