ARLINGTON, Texas -- As Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts strolled to the mound with two outs in the top of the sixth inning, a chorus of boos rained down from the crowd at Globe Life Field. Even though this was Game 5 of Major League Baseball's first neutral-site World Series, Dodgers fans have overrun the stadium, and they let their feelings be known: They did not want Roberts to remove Clayton Kershaw from the game.
Roberts did not abide, and as Kershaw strode off the mound, it was to a sound too often unfamiliar to him in October: cheers. If ever there was a postseason to huzzah the Dodgers' left-hander, of course, this is it, and his plenty-solid performance in Game 5 laid the foundation for the Dodgers' 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday.
The win, on the heels of the Dodgers' brutal Game 4 loss a day earlier, gave L.A. a 3-2 advantage in the series and put them one victory shy of their first championship since 1988. They can lock up a title in Game 6 on Tuesday night.
"It feels pretty good," Kershaw said of walking off the mound to a standing ovation. "Anytime you can have success in the postseason, it just means so much -- that is what you work for, that is what you play for this month. I know what the other end of that feels like too. I will definitely take it when I can get it."
If this was Kershaw's last appearance in the 2020 postseason -- there's always a potential Game 7 relief appearance looming -- there's a good argument that it's his finest playoffs yet. His shakiness in Game 5 evened out in the middle innings -- he even foiled the first attempted straight steal of home in a World Series game since 1982 -- and by the time Roberts yanked him, Kershaw had retired eight batters in a row to gussy up a final line of 5⅔ innings, 5 hits, 2 runs, 2 walks and 6 strikeouts. In total, he has thrown 30⅔ innings in these playoffs, allowed 23 hits, walked 5 and struck out 37 with a 2.93 ERA and four wins.
"I thought he pitched a heck of a game," Roberts said. "And to go out there and get two more hitters (in the sixth), we felt that that would be good enough. And at that point in time, once he did that, I thought it was time to take the baseball. And I think he felt good."
Though the jeers that greeted Roberts on his way to the mound were even worse as he returned to the dugout, his maneuvering in Game 5 worked far better than his bungling the day prior -- even if it placed the Dodgers in one particularly hairy situation. Dustin May, the fireballer who replaced Kershaw, struck out Rays cleanup hitter Manuel Margot on a 101.5 mph fastball to end the sixth and threw another scoreless 1⅓ innings afterward.
He exited with a runner on first when Rays manager Kevin Cash pinch hit left-handed hitter Ji-Man Choi, which prompted Roberts to go to lefty Victor Gonzalez. Cash immediately pinch hit right-hander Mike Brosseau, who mashes lefties, and he walked. Up stepped Randy Arozarena, the Rays' best hitter and a right-hander as well.
On the first pitch, Gonzalez induced a fly out. Brandon Lowe floated a ball to center field for the third out. The Dodgers had escaped, and Blake Treinen -- not Kenley Jansen, who blew Game 4 -- came on in the ninth and recorded the save.
"We stuck with the plan so credit to Doc for that one," Kershaw said of Roberts. "D-May came in and threw the ball awesome, Victor same way and Blake, too. Unbelievable job by those guys tonight, which was huge."
The Dodgers had played nine innings of clean baseball less than 20 hours after their two-error debacle with two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning allowed Arozarena to pound home plate for the winning run and Brett Phillips to airplane into the outfield after dropping the single that led to the chaotic series of events evening the series.
Mookie Betts ripped a leadoff double off Rays starter Tyler Glasnow, Corey Seager plated him with a single and Cody Bellinger's two-out infield single scored him, giving the Dodgers a 2-0 advantage. Joc Pederson's home run in the second extended it to 3-0 -- the same lead he had and frittered away in Game 5 of the 2017 World Series.
World Series Game 5s, in fact, had been a bugaboo for Kershaw. The Boston Red Sox tarred him with four runs in four innings of the 2018 World Series, and he was beginning to bend in the third inning Sunday. Kevin Kiermaier singled, Yandy Diaz tripled him in and Arozarena drove him in to cut the lead to 3-2.
"I didn't have my stuff like I did in Game 1,'' Kershaw said. "My slider wasn't there as good as it was, so fortunate to get through there."
The key moment came an inning later. Margot drew a leadoff walk, stole second and advanced to third on a bad throw. Hunter Renfroe walked. With runners on the corners, Joey Wendle popped out and Willy Adames struck out. With Kiermaier at the plate and down 0-1, Margot dashed for home. Kershaw recognized it in time and threw to catcher Austin Barnes, who slapped a tag with Margot's fingertips inches from home plate.
From there, Kershaw cruised, passing Justin Verlander for the most strikeouts all time in the postseason with 206. Kershaw, circa 2020, is more craftsman than conqueror, and though this wasn't the coronation he wanted nor the dominant start he desired, it was plenty good -- something well worth cheering.
"Kersh, a lot of credit goes to him for what we've been able to do in this World Series,'' Treinen said. "There's a tough narrative on him. He's a phenomenal pitcher on the biggest stage.''