The name on the front of the jersey trumped the name on the back.
Dave Roberts could not ignore that reality as he watched the cornerstone of the Dodgers wobble. While Clayton Kershaw labored through five bruising innings in Game 1 of the National League division series, Roberts harkened back to so many similar games in his first year as a manager. He has spent six months watching starting pitchers falter. The long season prepared him for this night.
For the last three years, the Dodgers asked Kershaw to carry them through October. On Friday, in a 4-3 victory over the Nationals, the roles reversed. The offense swatted two homers to offset his struggles. The bullpen collected the final 12 outs, giving up just one hit in the process.
“That’s been our formula all year long,” Roberts said. A playoff setting did not change his strategy. The presence of Kershaw did not make him sentimental. He maneuvered his players into position and watched them grab a game on the road. The Dodgers will turn to Rich Hill as he opposes Nationals starter Tanner Roark in Game 2 on Saturday afternoon.
In the opener, the purported pitching duel between Kershaw and Max Scherzer did not follow a classic arc. Corey Seager supplied a solo shot in the first inning, and Justin Turner hit a two-run homer in the third as the Dodgers bundled four runs together. Kershaw handed three runs back to the hosts, battling his own command as much as his opponents.
Little came easy for Kershaw. Fastballs sailed too high. Curveballs bounced too soon. Sliders darted too far inside. He struck out seven but yielded eight hits.
“As close as you can bend without breaking,” Kershaw said. “But that’s our routine: I only went five, and our bullpen only gave up one hit.”
The departure of Kershaw in a playoff game used to incite panic. The Dodgers experienced only calm on Friday. Their bullpen led the major leagues this season in innings logged and strikeouts recorded while posting the sport’s lowest earned-run average. So Joe Blanton picked up two outs. Grant Dayton secured two. Pedro Baez recorded three.
The last five were the responsibility of Kenley Jansen. He yielded a two-out double in the eighth, but recovered to freeze former Dodger Chris Heisey with a full-count cutter for the third out. Forced to bat for the first time all season, Jansen struck out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth, then returned to close out the ninth by fanning Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth with a slider.
“When our starters go five, we never complain about it,” Jansen said. “We just go out there and do the job. We know it’s going to come down to us to keep this team going farther and farther.”
Kershaw extended himself to 101 pitches. He had not thrown that many since June 26, his last outing before he received an epidural for a herniated disk and missed 75 days.
The afternoon started with a bout of gamesmanship. Hours before the first pitch, Nationals Manager Dusty Baker suggested the umpires should study Kershaw’s delivery with runners on base. Kershaw might be getting away with balks, Baker implied.
Roberts took the gambit in stride. He joked that the crew should focus on Washington relievers like Mark Melancon and Shawn Kelley. The Dodgers did not raise the issue with Kershaw. The team understood it was merely meant to rattle their ace.
At 4:50 p.m., a quartet of reporters stood inside the Dodgers dugout. Kershaw climbed the steps and walked into the fading light.
“Clear the dugout,” a team official told the reporters. “Clear the dugout.”
Kershaw inspected his gear by the bat rack and fetched himself a cup of water. He sat in the middle of the empty dugout, his feet rattling against the floor. The cup drained, Kershaw rose and ambled across a red carpet laid out for pregame introductions. He walked into the outfield to warm up, all alone, with his eyes cast downward.
Kershaw took the mound 56 minutes later. His team had already handed him a lead. In the second at-bat of the game, Scherzer fired a fastball that hovered around Seager’s waist. Seager launched the baseball over the fence in center field.
“We were looking for any runs we could get off him,” Seager said.
Kershaw protected the advantage by striking out the side in the first inning. The second inning was less enjoyable. He needed 23 pitches after a pair of misplays by Chase Utley — a double play not turned, a groundball booted — led to a bases-loaded jam. Kershaw got Scherzer to fly out to escape, but the stress showed on his face.
The Dodgers kept attacking Scherzer. Turner noticed him ditch his fastball during the second turn through the order. Utley hit an RBI single on a slider. Two batters later, Scherzer hung a curveball. Turner lifted it over the fence in left field.
“That’s what you have to do, make adjustments on the fly,” Turner said.
The flurry quieted the crowd. That would not last.
In the bottom of the third, the Nationals broke through. Bryce Harper smacked a one-out double. Werth walked. Kershaw appeared unable to establish a rhythm with catcher Yasmani Grandal. The pair met for three separate mound conferences during the first five batters of the inning.
The delays arose from Kershaw’s interest in switching the signs. He did not want the Nationals to steal any. “I had so many guys on second base tonight that I really wanted to make sure we were changing it up often,” Kershaw said.
As Kershaw palavered with Grandal, the Nationals planned an ambush. The runners executed a double steal, which placed two men in scoring position for third baseman Anthony Rendon, who whacked a misplaced slider into left for a two-run single.
The lead shrank to a run in the fourth. Kershaw served up a leadoff double to rookie catcher Pedro Severino. Another rookie, outfielder Trea Turner, brought him home with a sacrifice fly.
In the top of the fifth, Roberts needed to decide whether Kershaw could continue. His spot was due second in the order. Roberts elected to stick with his ace. The choice was harrowing, but proved correct.
Kershaw gave up a single to Werth and another to Rendon. The scene in the bullpen painted a picture of anxiety. Baez stood by the fence, loosening his arms. Luis Avilan paced. When the phone rang with one out, Blanton hopped up.
Roberts stuck with Kershaw for two more batters. Ryan Zimmerman lined out to left. Kershaw screamed twice after shortstop Danny Espinosa swung through a curveball. It was Espinosa’s third strikeout of the day. It was Kershaw’s last pitch of the night.
“I threw two of my better curveballs to him on the night,” Kershaw said. “I was just happy to get him out.”
The bullpen limited the drama. Roberts experienced a sense of calm as Blanton jogged in for the sixth. “We’ve done it all year long,” he said.
In the seventh, the Nationals extinguished a rally by their own hand. After Murphy coaxed a walk off Dayton, he tried to steal second off Baez. A strained buttocks had sidelined Murphy during the season’s final weeks. Grandal skipped a throw toward second base. Waiting for it was Charlie Culberson, who had just replaced Utley. Culberson snagged the ball off the dirt and applied the tag.
Jansen did not waver. He expected to pitch more than one inning on Friday. He is willing to do the same on Saturday. He knew he needed to be ready for anything. That’s how these Dodgers, led by Roberts and fortified by their bullpen, have operated all season.
“It’s not one guy that’s going to carry us,” Turner said. “You don’t have to do it all yourself. Clayton went out there, emptied the tank for five innings and left the game with a lead. And we turned it over to our guys that have been locking down games all season long.”