LOS ANGELES — Yu Darvish slalomed his way through the crowd in the tunnel outside the Dodgers’ clubhouse Tuesday night, heading home wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a “Caviar Cartel” baseball cap. He looked a bit frantic to part the bodies, which was to be expected. He was only 20 minutes removed from the realization that he was 20 hours away from the most monumental start of his — or any pitcher’s — career.
A few minutes later, inside the clubhouse, Clayton Kershaw stood at his locker wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a “BillyJackSprinkler.com” baseball cap. He appeared to be considerably more relaxed than Darvish, probably because he was 20-plus hours away from only the most monumental relief appearance of his — or any pitcher’s — career.
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When the Dodgers traded for Darvish on July 31, this was always going to be the deal: Kershaw and Darvish, a formidable pair for the postseason. In Game 7 at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night, they’ll undoubtedly present a condensed version. They’ll get what they wanted, in the forum they predicted, in a way they might not have envisioned.
And both men, in the parlance of the overheated pregame voiceover, will have something to prove. Kershaw was transcendent in Game 1, Darvish was overwhelmed in Game 3 and Kershaw was unable to hold separate four- and three-run leads in Game 5. And through six games, 23 home runs and all the Joc Pederson you can handle, there’s been a Dodgers-related subtext to nearly the entire series. Since Game 3, which marked Darvish’s shortest start as a big-leaguer (1 2/3 innings, six hits, four earned), the Dodgers have worked to boost Darvish’s confidence and show their faith, knowing a Game 7 start was a likely and just conclusion.
In the dugout before Game 4, a night after Darvish struggled and Yuli Gurriel added controversy to the list of World Series ingredients by making a racist gesture, several Dodgers teammates told Darvish they were going to win that game for him. On the field during Game 6 Tuesday night, there was a remarkable, if figurative, nod to the bond between Darvish and his teammates. In the second inning, starter Rich Hill allowed Gurriel to marinate in the loud, seamless booing from L.A. fans who devoted much of the night to treating him like a wrinkly eyelid. Both times Gurriel faced Hill, the Dodgers starter left the mound and took an unhurried walk, like a guy badessing whether the lawn might need a quick mow.
Hill didn’t fake it, either. “I don’t think the punishment [a five-game suspension next season] fit the action,” he said. “I think, rightfully so, the fans spoke out and understood what was going on. I gave them their time to voice their opinion.”
And then after the game, Justin Turner said, “I gave [Darvish] a big hug and told him I’m glad we gave him the opportunity to go out there and throw like he can again.” This has always been a thing with Darvish, that no matter how good he is, he has to be reminded. His demeanor — magisterial, with a raised chin that makes him look like he’s always straining to look over someone’s head — might be a way of submerging inner doubt. “He’s not necessarily emotional,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “but he is sensitive.”
In a rare pregame appearance in the interview room for a Game 7 starter, Darvish said, “We have really good people in this clubhouse, and I really appreciate my teammates supporting me.”
Darvish is devoted to preparation, visualization and quirky rituals. The night before his first start as a Dodger, a start in which he admitted to expectation-induced anxiety, he came out of the dugout to shake hands with his teammates after a win in Arizona and then peeled off to walk up the back of the mound and swipe the rubber with his foot. He lifted his head and looked in at a vacant home plate for a few seconds before backing down off the mound and joining his teammates. He is highly attuned to his environment, which is why he requested to start Game 3 in Houston, where he had pitched well.
Darvish sometimes walks around the clubhouse using a hand-held cordless mbadager, about the size of a soda can. It sounds like an electric hedge trimmer, and it usually resides in the training room, but Darvish carries it around running it across his neck, shoulders, hips and hamstrings. His teammates looked at him a little sideways the first time — especially the ones trying to watch the televisions in the clubhouse — but you could almost see their minds working as they kept quiet: Whatever he’s doing, it must work.
In Game 7, Roberts will be quick with Darvish; that is probably the only certainty going in. The way Roberts has worked his bullpen in this postseason — running Tony Watson and Brandon Morrow out there for nightly shifts, using Kenley Jansen like he needs to earn all of his $80 million contract by Nov. 1 — about the only thing left for him to do is to make a pitching change mid-pitch.
And when he does employ that familiar quick walk to the mound to get Darvish, he’ll almost baduredly be pointing at Kershaw. These two have been paired in the Dodgers’ consciousness since July 31, never more obviously than when the team’s late-season struggles mounted to 16 losses in 17 games and 11 straight. On Sept. 12 in San Francisco, Kershaw broke the losing streak with a strong start, and the Dodgers were quietly happy their ace ended the streak rather than leaving it to Darvish, who didn’t need the added pressure of “saving” his new team. The next night, Darvish threw seven shutout innings to begin a five-start streak of allowing no more than one run in each.
Kershaw, who right now has the beard and hair of a guy coming off a monthlong hunting trip, is not one to look outward for badurance. He can handle that fine on his own, thank you, and one other thing: He is not interested in your redemption narrative. He’s not difficult, at least not in the traditional clubhouse sense, but it is implicit that any interaction with Kershaw is conducted with the mutual knowledge that he is the best pitcher in baseball.
“I’ll be ready to go from pitch 1,” Kershaw said. “Whatever they need — it’s the last game of the season. Preparation’s out the door at this point. Routine is out the door. It’s just — there’s no excuses. You have to just get guys out as fast as you can for as long as you can.”
It’s Game 7, and the Dodgers will go with a caviar guy trying to create a bigger legacy and a sprinkler guy trying to cement one. Along the way, they’ll use whoever they can however they can. In the sage words of Dodgers infielder Charlie Culberson: “Win or go home. … Well, I guess we all go home regardless.”