ARLINGTON, Texas -- The season was slipping, desperation was setting in, and so Clayton Kershaw made it a point to stand in the right-center-field bullpen for the sixth and seventh games of the National League Championship Series and make himself available, even though using him might not have been either necessary or sensible. As those nights unfolded, Kershaw struggled to remain still. He frequently bounced up and down with his hands in his kangaroo pocket. Occasionally, he performed some light calisthenics. At one point, he stood on the mound and mimicked his delivery. But the call never came. The bullpen doors never opened for him.
It felt ... different.
The 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers need Kershaw to be good, but they don't need Kershaw like they used to. They don't need him to run his pitch count into the triple digits, don't need him to take the ball on short rest and don't need him to make emergency appearances as a reliever. It was evident in the way the Dodgers defeated the Atlanta Braves on Saturday and Sunday, and it was evident in how the World Series opener played out -- with Kershaw dominating the Tampa Bay Rays through the first five innings, the offense coming alive thereafter and everything suddenly becoming so much easier.
After it was over, and the Dodgers had solidified an 8-3 victory in Game 1 on Tuesday, Kershaw expressed unfeigned gratitude toward the team that surrounds him and the opportunity in front of him.
"So thankful," he said. "It's incredible. Nothing is deserved in this game. Just because you're here, just because you're on a team, you don't deserve to be a part of anything like this. It's just an opportunity, man. It's so special."
Kershaw, noticeably helped by the traditional four days off between starts, allowed only one run and three baserunners through six innings. He struck out eight batters and generated whiffs on 50% of the swings against him for the first time in his career, exploiting a Rays team that swung through strikes more often than any other this season. Along the way, he joined Justin Verlander as the only men to reach 200 career postseason strikeouts.
Kershaw appreciably lacked feel for his slider in a 20-pitch first inning, prompting more fastballs and curveballs toward the end of it. In the dugout later, he vowed to his catcher, Austin Barnes, that he would find his slider again.
"I don't really have an alternative," Kershaw said with a laugh. "I kind of have to figure it out."
From the second inning on, Kershaw threw 20 of his 27 sliders for strikes and generated swing-and-misses on 11 of them. When he finished the top of the fifth, he had retired 14 of his last 15 batters but also had allowed a 382-foot home run to the light-hitting Kevin Kiermaier. The Dodgers led by only a run. Kershaw entered with an 8.12 postseason ERA once the lineup turned over a third time, and the Rays were getting ready for their third look.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts would soon face the vexing decision about how long to ride Kershaw in October, a common consternation this time of year. Then the Dodgers' offense exploded for four runs against a tiring Tyler Glasnow. They drew back-to-back walks, pulled off a double steal and strung together three run-scoring singles, relieving the stress of a sixth inning that saw the Rays go down in order and letting Kershaw finish his start after only 78 pitches.
"It set the tone," Barnes said of Kershaw's outing. "After that first inning, he was dominant."
Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman has spent most of his tenure attempting to construct a team good enough to not be overly reliant on Kershaw in the biggest moments. Friedman has come close in recent years, but this group has solidified that vision. The pitching staff is deeper. Young players such as Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias, hardened by the failures of postseasons past, have emerged. And Mookie Betts -- now the first man to ever homer, steal two bases and score two runs in a World Series game -- has had a more profound impact than anyone could have imagined.
It's why Roberts stood on a makeshift stage at Globe Life Field here on Sunday night and declared, loudly, "This is our year."
It's why Kershaw's thoughts sometimes wander.
"It's hard not to think about winning," Kershaw said. "It's hard not to think about what that might feel like. But I think that's what I have to do. I think that's what we have to do as a team. Just tomorrow. Just constantly keep putting that in your brain -- 'win tomorrow,' 'win tomorrow,' 'win tomorrow.' You do that three more times, then you can think about it all you want. It is hard not to let that creep in. But I know that I'm gonna pitch again this series, and I know that we have three more games to win, and that starts with tomorrow."
To many -- most? -- Kershaw might always be seen as an athlete who fails in the most important moments, regardless of the flaws in his postseason narrative. He entered his Game 1 start with a 5.40 ERA in the World Series, a number that looks a lot better if you erase his horrid Game 5 start against a 2017 Houston Astros team known to have cheated.
This postseason, however, Kershaw has a 2.88 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 25 innings. His Tuesday start marked the fourth time he has pitched at least six innings and given up two runs or fewer in the postseason, tied with Verlander and Max Scherzer for the most ever.
After Game 1 was over, he was asked if this team is beatable at its best.
"I mean, if we play at our best, no," Kershaw said. "I think we are the best team, and I think our clubhouse believes that. There's gonna be certain times where we get beat, and that happens. But as a collective group, if everybody's doing what they're supposed to be doing and playing the way they're supposed to, I don't see how that can happen."