BOTTOM OF THE NINTH: DODGERS 4 – 3 NATIONALS
The Los Angeles Dodgers of the year 2016. Champions of the N.L. West. Surmounters of the fearful Giants, beaters of the odds, overcomers of the expectations, endurers over the injuries, prudent protectors of the blisters, demoters of the Puig, promoters of the Puig, winking smiling last-laughers over the doubters. Party-throwers for Sir Vin’s last major-league run. Victors, in this last great win, over the Washington Nationals.
It was the absurd history of a team not destined for anything at all, slapping the fates around from April to September, left-right jabbing and knocking kismet sideways to reengineer the laws of baseball luck in their favor. The year of ‘don’t look at me’, the year of the Stripling game, the year of the Toles grand slam, the year of, well—I know an encyclopedic diehard who can put it far better.
— Sammy Roth (@Sammy_Roth) September 26, 2016
So let’s make a toast, folks. To this 2016 Dodgers club. A great god damn year of a baseball year. Loaded up with enough joy to forget about any bit of the ending. Lost to the Cubs? Went down 5-0 with Kershaw on the mound? Blew a 2-1 series lead? Saw the bats go cold at the worst of possible times? No… no, no. It was a short flash in the wrong direction, from a team limping lockstep in the right direction all year. So have a toast—drink, drink again, to forget, to commemorate, to do both together, mix hope with heartbreak in a shot topped off with a garnish, this final ninth inning in Washington, the winning of the NLDS.
The single best inning of the Dodgers season.
Better than the third-inning squeeze from Maeda in St. Louis, better than the eight-run seventh in Philadelphia, than the year’s greatest comeback against Arizona—better even than the 7th inning, this same night, Pederson solo-homering Scherzer out of the game, Justin Turner shooting a triple off the center-field wall, the boys in blue with the lead that would hold on ‘til the end. Better than all the rest, this ninth inning was.
Tonight was the camera crew, abandoning ship for some siren in the distance, hearing their name in a whisper, leaving helm and halyards on the concourse and turning all attention to one place over the rest—the L.A. bullpen. Warmup pitches being thrown. Sweat being wiped off forehead. Cap being adjusted. Clayton Kershaw himself, standing on a mound and glowing, aura-bathed and un-look-away-able, ready somehow to pitch a save in this ninth inning. With a whole crew of cameramen cutting away from the game, panning over for the briefest of telephoto glances, a pack of distracted cab drivers leering across hidden, multi-mirrored combinations at the prettiest girl on the street.
Shout out to the Nats reliever taking pics of Kershaw heading to the bullpen. pic.twitter.com/9SdTN01tIk
— Jeff J. Snider (@snidog) October 14, 2016
Yes the game is on, yes Kenley Jansen is pitching, yes Marlins Man is on selfie number one-hundred behind the plate, but What is Clayton Kershaw doing?
We need another shot of Clayton? One of them asks to their producer. I can get one for you, I’ll just pan over, zoom in, I’ve got you a Clayton Kershaw live shot, lined up.
I can zoom all day, says another.
Clayton? You need Clayton? I’ve got Clayton for days—Camera 8 here.
Camera 10 checking in, anyone filming Clayton?
Clayton? You need Clayton? Clayton? More Clayton?
Clayton, the producer says, off in a bubble bath somewhere. Just. Get. Me. More Clayton.
And if this inning, this game, this Clayton Kershaw bit of October bravado wasn’t the highlight of some teams’ whole decades, we might be right to throw in another riff of ridicule. To lampoon the Joe Buck / Clayton Kershaw love affair, the endless congratulations and witness-this-greatness demands to the TV audience, to call it all a tired tradition. But the man has earned his keep. And he’s in the bullpen there in Washington, warming up with an N.L.-best teammate on the mound, ready to remedy a postseason bug he’s never quite shaken, the short-rest savior all Dodger fans have been hoping for.
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 14, 2016
The first at-bat, no outs: Jansen draws a foul fly ball from Trea Turner, floating down the line behind first, bouncing onto the dirt just past the glove of Charlie Culberson—diving the Eric Byrnes dive homage to no avail.
Nats fans all standing. A stadium of deep red. Hoping their Nats don’t do the Nats thing they’ve been so used to doing. Some five miles south of the Smithsonian, a museum of baseball tension; miles south of the Capitol, a blue-vs-red battle of dugout politic; some miles south of the monuments, a Bryce Harper on-deck awaiting the pose he’ll be immortalized by, mulling over the options: the two fists skyward, ball soaring over the outfield wall; the one-fist Tiger Woods screamer; the jump and the hug into the first-base coach’s arms; the somersault around first base, the worm on second, the pausing past third, approaching home, bowling his helmet toward the plate, the ten teammates falling to the ground in a last-frame strike.
Turner strikes out, Harper steps up. The walkoff-statue chance no more.
A segue into baseball theater, at its very best. An MVP at the plate. An MVReliever. An MVPitcher warming up behind him. Two teams down to their last game in a season of up-for-grabs chances.
Dusty Baker spits onto the dirt outside the dugout. The spit of a man who spit on Anaheim dirt at the Rally Monkey Game, who spit on Chicago dirt at the Bartman game, who spit on Cincinnati dirt at the Buster Posey Game. The spit of a man who just wants to be the man whose spit can be spat on World Series dirt, the spit of a man in great pain.
The most old-school of major-league managers, he’s wearing a pair of glasses out of a century we haven’t reached, making (we think?) weird amends for every perceived flaw. I’m new school!! they seem to shout, I’m new school!!
I’m not that guy anymore. It’s twenty-sixteen. I’ve got these glasses now. I can win now. I thinkIcan, IthinkIcan, IthinkIcan… and he trails off into another nervous spit on the dirt. Glasses on sturdy, designed by some 25th-century Navin Johnson.
— Ben Lacy (@bennlacy) October 14, 2016
The cameras cut to Kershaw in the pen again. His hat half off. Back to Daniel Murphy on the top step of the dugout, eyes closed for seconds at a time in meditation.
Harper draws a walk.
Dave Roberts looks out at Jansen, raising a finger. “One more?” Trots out to the mound to be sure, the pitch count at 45 and rising.
“Kenley Jansen sailing in choppy waters,” says Tom Verducci on the broadcast. “Uncharted waters he’s never been in.”
Jayson Werth steps up. Hirsute. Angry. “Werewolves of London” on the speakers.
In the stands it’s a big rowdy sea of color, going red red red red red red red blue red red red red blue red red red red red orange.
Marlins Man. Encamped in his habitual first-row perch, texting away furiously, switching from messenger to camera, swiping over to video, turning his back to the mound and recording live. Jansen bends his wrist cocked into the glove. Sets. Fires. Ball two to Werth with Harper threatening a steal over at first. Chewing on gum and glaring out at the mound.
“Pitch by pitch,” says Verducci, “You can see the attrition on Kenley Jansen.”
Jansen misses away on a 2-2 cutter. Full count.
“The faces of October… strain written in capital letters.”
The camera cuts back behind home. Marlins Man with the orange visor gone full side tilt.
Jayson Werth walks.
And Clayton Kershaw throws one last bullpen pitch all out.
The bullpen gates opens and he exits. The Dodger infield waits on the mound. Kershaw jogs across left field. Strides up to the group. Jansen heads back to the dugout.
Dave Roberts getting off the bullpen phone ready to call in Kershaw pic.twitter.com/fvPinu085q
— The Big Inning (@big_inning) October 14, 2016
A sight we’ve never quite seen. Last time in from the ‘pen since October 21, 2009, that year’s NLCS. A home run given up to the pennant-winning Phillies. Here now with a one-run lead and Daniel Murphy stepping in to hit. Men on first and second. A monkey on his back the size of… the size of… the exact size of the perennial monkey on Dusty Baker’s chronically weighed-down back. One man will win, if only for this postseason round.
And as he warms up, Fox Sports 1 holds back from a commercial break, broadcasting the interim—a bit of charity for the TV audience that should! be mandated! for all such postseason situations!
Kershaw’s licking his palm, one cameraman zooms on the palm, Kershaw’s adjusting his hair, another cameraman zooms on his hair, Kershaw’s picking up the rosin bag, another cameraman zooms on the rosin bag. All hands on deck filming a documentary for next-day release—The ‘Shaw Redemption: A Story of 0.2 Bullpen Innings.
Daniel Murphy at the bat.
This. This right here. Is the moment of Clayton Kershaw’s career. For now and forever. This is it, pal. This is it.
— The Big Inning (@big_inning) October 14, 2016
Kershaw’s glove moves up to the sky, both arms pull in. Looks to second base behind him. Throws a fastball high. 1-0 count. His leg does the kink-kick, straightens out, plants home. Jansen’s in the dugout, hat off, sweaty, hoping, watching.
Everyone prepped for a thirty-pitch at-bat. Waiting for the chess game to come. Waiting, like students of the game, for the greatest thing we’ve ever—
And Murphy pops up to the infield on the second pitch.
The moment that had been building, blowing up with helium for minutes, hours, an entire season, deflates in five airborne seconds until the ball lands in Culberson’s glove.
And Dusty, poor Dusty Baker, gives the saddest look we’ve seen in a baseball game, to date. Like his children and wealth and memory and livelihood and arms and legs were all just stolen away with one swing of a bat. Sadness. Just… sad sadness. No other way to call it.
Sad because Kershaw’s pitching, sad because there are two outs, sad because his team’s down one run. And sad, over all, because of what he’s got left. Wilmer Difo. Wilmer Difo? Pinch-hitting for the pitcher’s spot from a double switch innings earlier. Wilmer… Difo? A game that changed inside-out, from walkoff on the horizon to walk-home looming three quick strikes away, with Wilmer Difo? Oh. Well. That whole build-up for, well, not much of nothing.
Kershaw licks his palm again. Twists the ball around in his hands. Stares home. Shakes off twice. Nods. Pitches. Throws a second strike on a nasty cutter.
Harper’s on second. Werth on first. Murphy in dugout. Scherzer pacing around angry. Fans on their loyal feet. Dusty all out of toothpicks.
And Kershaw throws the best curveball we’ve seen all year.
Shot up into the upper-deck atmosphere and whipped down into the dirt.
He flings it. Observes it. Watches a swing and miss. Clinches both arms toward his chest. Then throws both up in the air. The catcher-runs-and-hugs-pitcher moment delayed for just a second—Ruiz snagging the ball out of the glove and throwing over to first.
— Sports Photos (@sportsphotos) October 20, 2016
The dugout empties, Kershaw’s mobbed on the mound. Nationals walk off into the clubhouse. Scherzer stunned. Nats fans search for a way home. The winning, fitting end to the very best Dodger inning all year.
“Next week, next year, twenty years from now,” says Harold Reynolds, “this will be remembered as the Clayton Kershaw game.”
They hug, after the full-team madness on the mound. Jansen and Kershaw, battery mates for the last professional save under his belt: 2006, minor-leagues, Gulf Coast Dodgers, ten-plus years in between. Relief! they seem to scream out, Sweet holy relief!
The post-game interview runs two questions too long—Kershaw grabs the mic. “Hey—Kenley’s the best closer in the game, but we’ve got some champagne to pop so we’re outta here!!”
Fans around DodgerLand call up a song on their radios, their phones, their voices, in the backseats of a car. Randy Newman at their back.
Singing it loud.
I Love L.A. We love it! We love it!