As much as Clayton Kershaw had chipped away at his complicated legacy of postseason failure this October - crafting a 2.88 ERA through four outings and turning in a gem in the World Series opener - his latest attempt to expunge the lone blight on his Hall of Fame resume ultimately hinged on Game 5.
A slipup Sunday at Globe Life Field, with the series suddenly tied at 2-2 following the Los Angeles Dodgers' nightmarish collapse in Game 4, would've negated his prior efforts. His reputation as a playoff choker - which, again, isn't as clear-cut as his inflated ERA may suggest - would've been reinforced in the minds of many baseball fans, perhaps irretrievably.
However, in his biggest start of the year, Kershaw didn't falter. Instead, the three-time Cy Young Award winner capped his redemptive postseason with a gutsy 5 2/3 innings against the Tampa Bay Rays, propelling the Dodgers to a 4-2 win and putting them on the precipice of their first championship in 32 years. And while the vaunted left-hander walked off the mound in the bottom of the sixth inning with many of the Dodgers fans in attendance shaking their heads - a reaction he no doubt grew accustomed to over the years as his postseason misfires mounted - their frustration on this occasion wasn't with him. Rather, they were peeved at manager Dave Roberts for taking him out.
Ironically, had Roberts relieved Kershaw two innings earlier, the decision may have been less controversial. Unlike in Game 1, when he limited Tampa Bay to one run over six innings, Kershaw didn't have his best stuff Sunday. His slider, which became his most frequently used pitch this year, was markedly less sharp: After generating 11 whiffs with the pitch in the series opener, Kershaw induced only seven in Game 5 despite throwing just one fewer slider. With his primary weapon dulled and his command occasionally spotty, Kershaw didn't look nearly as invulnerable.
In the bottom of the third, after being staked to an early 3-0 lead, Kershaw gave two runs back, serving up a triple to Yandy Diaz - aided by a rare miscue in right field by Mookie Betts - on a fastball that caught too much of the plate and a single from Randy Arozarena on a hanging 3-0 curveball. Neither ball was scorched - each had an exit velocity between 93-94 mph - but it was still hard not to see the combination of poor batted-ball luck (Kevin Kiermaier reached on a tapper to lead off the inning) and imperfect execution as a precursor to another devastating start.
And, sure enough, Kershaw's outing looked poised to fully unravel an inning later. After a leadoff walk to Manuel Margot, who promptly reached third following a stolen base and an error, Kershaw issued another free pass to Hunter Renfroe, putting runners at the corners with nobody out. The stage was set for another memorable Kershaw implosion. Had Roberts gone to his bullpen to extinguish the threat, it would've been understandable. Instead, he stuck with his ace.
His ace delivered.
First, Kershaw induced an infield pop-up from Joey Wendle, who couldn't get his barrel on a 92-mph fastball perfectly located on the inside edge of the plate. Then, Kershaw flummoxed Willy Adames with a masterful three-pitch sequence, getting him to chase a curveball out of the zone for strike three. And, before he could retire Kiermaier for the inning's final out, Kershaw instead nabbed Margot, cutting down the intrepid outfielder as he attempted the first steal of home in a World Series game since 2002.
From that point onward, Kershaw was perfect. He needed only 16 pitches to retire the next five batters he faced, the first two via strikeout. By the time Roberts emerged from the dugout with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the sixth, his club's lead extended to two runs, Kershaw was so locked in that even Justin Turner - who knows all too well what can happen when too much is asked of Kershaw - was lobbying his manager to leave the lefty in. (Turner was unsuccessful.)
All told, Kershaw allowed two runs on five hits and two walks over 5 2/3 innings, surrendering only three hard-hit balls while notching six strikeouts to become the all-time postseason strikeout leader. While it wasn't the most dominant performance of his career, it was enough. It's a fitting capper to a postseason that should recalibrate the collective perception of Kershaw, at least a little bit.
Assuming he doesn't pitch in relief in Game 6 (or, if necessary, Game 7), Kershaw finishes his postseason with a 2.93 ERA and 0.91 WHIP. He struck out 37 and issued just five walks over 30 2/3 innings. L.A. won all but one of his five starts. It was, in short, the finest October of his singular career.
While the Dodgers may or may not end up winning the Fall Classic, Kershaw will bear no responsibility if they come up short: He allowed three runs combined in his two World Series starts, fashioning a 2.31 ERA while holding the Rays to a .179 batting average. Never before, moreover, had Kershaw won two games in a single postseason series.
Simply put, Kershaw's postseason performance finally reflected his greatness instead of undermining it. This time around, there were no pained sound bites to dispense. ("Maybe one of these days, I won't fail, we won't fail, and we'll win one of these things," Kershaw told USA Today following the 2017 World Series.)
This time around, the definitive image of Kershaw's postseason isn't one of defeated despondence. Instead, thanks in large part to his own brilliance, the most indelible image of Kershaw this October may well be one of him hoisting the Commissioner's Trophy.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.