LOS ANGELES — And so it comes down to Clayton Kershaw. Of course it does.
Kershaw will pitch the pivotal fifth game against the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Championship Series, only there will be more at stake than a place in the World Series.
If they don't win, the odds increase that the contest Wednesday afternoon at Dodger Stadium could mark his last time he scales the mound for the franchise that oversaw his ascension from an 18-year-old first-round draft choice to a 30-year-old with three Cy Young Awards.
This is the most significant potential departure the Dodgers have encountered in decades, one that is emotionally charged for everyone involved. That includes Kershaw, who can terminate the remaining two years of his contract and enter the free-agent market this winter.
Even under the most ordinary of circumstances, Kershaw treasures routine. The five-day cycles of running and throwing that lead up his starts are designed to minimize distractions. He's especially mindful of that here.
So he's not making any extra efforts to take in everything or commit certain details of this place to memory.
"Trying not to," Kershaw said. "I think it's hard enough to try and win a postseason game."
"I know that more than anybody," he added.
The self-effacing remark was evidence of the latest stage of his personal evolution. He has responded to his disappointing postseason record in a variety of ways over the years, from denial to acceptance to being at a loss for words. He's now trying humor.
He spoke in a similarly lighthearted tone at a news conference a couple of weeks ago, before his start in Game 2 of the National League Division Series. People familiar with the situation said he was disappointed not to pitch the opening game of the series. His sense of humor helped him conceal that.
Kershaw was spectacular in that NLDS start against the Braves. In addition to pitching eight scoreless innings, he reestablished himself as the team's No. 1 starter.
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The Dodgers won the NLDS, three games to one, but manager Dave Roberts said that Kershaw would have pitched the fifth game if the series had reached that point.
And in this NLCS, Kershaw was chosen to start the first game in Milwaukee. The assignment came with responsibility beyond pitching in the series opener. He was also entrusted with Game 5, whether it was to close out the series, keep the Dodgers alive, or something in between.
Kershaw made the shortest start of his career in Game 1 of this series against the Brewers, as he was charged with five runs over three innings. His results against them were better in the regular season, as he was 1-1 with a 2.25 earned-run average.
"There's no secrets anymore," he said. "I think now that we're in the fourth game of the series and facing them a couple of times in the regular season, I know what their strengths and weaknesses are. They obviously know mine."
He was asked if his diminished ability to miss bats, a byproduct of his decreased fastball velocity, made him feel any less in control of results and how he was dealing with that.
"I don't really think about that," he said. "It's not like I'm trying to pitch to contact more. It's just happening."
Kershaw uncharacteristically acknowledged the expectations of winning a World Series weighed on him more now than it did in the past. "I think with each postseason and not winning a World Series, I think you tack on a little bit more pressure, a little bit more urgency to win, especially when you're in the market that we're in, when you're with the team that we are," he said.
He recycled a joke he's previously used, about how the Dodgers are tired of hearing about the 1988 World Series.
"And it's up to us to do something about it, obviously," he said. "We need to create a history of our own, for sure."
Shortly after saying he still hasn't decided whether he will void the remaining two years on his contract that are worth a combined $65 million - he thinks he has 10 days after the World Series to make up his mind - Kershaw reflected on his own history here.
"I got drafted when I was 18," he said. "I got here when I was 20. From 20 to 30, that's a lot of growing years right there. I've gotten married, had two kids, played a lot of baseball. And really have grown up in this city.
"The only word that comes to mind is just grateful. I really am. It's been a great run. And whatever happens, I'll be thankful for that, always."