ARLINGTON, Tex. — After Clayton Kershaw pitched his way to a victory for the Dodgers over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday night at Globe Life Field, he sounded almost whimsical about Los Angeles finally winning it all this year.
“It’s hard not to think about winning,” Kershaw said. “It’s hard not to think about what that might feel like. But what I have to do and what we have to do as a team is just think about tomorrow. You have to keep putting it in your brain, ‘Win tomorrow, win tomorrow, win tomorrow.’ And if you do that three more times you can think about it all you want.”
This is the third time this core team of Dodgers has been to the World Series in the past four years, and so far that feeling of winning tomorrow has never come. The Dodgers lost in 2017 to the Houston Astros and in 2018 to the Boston Red Sox.
They haven’t won the title since 1988, a decade before Tampa Bay was born into the American League. And the Rays are looking for their first World Series win in their second try and first since 2008.
The Rays came back in this series to win Game 2, knotting the best-of-seven affair at a game apiece and setting up a tough and grinding series with Games 3, 4 and 5 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.
Kershaw has little time for flights of fantasy. At 32, he’s winding down, and back and left shoulder injuries have plagued much of his past four seasons. He hasn’t made as many as 33 starts since 2015, averaging 25 the past four years and making 10 during this COVID-shortened 60-game season.
Kershaw has 175 wins, a 2.43 ERA and 2,526 strikeouts in 2,333 innings over the course of 13 seasons. He may be on his way to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, despite a 12-12 record and 4.22 ERA in 36 playoff games and no World Series rings.
Not yet, anyway.
“It’s hard not to let the [thoughts of winning] creep in, but I know I’m going to pitch again in this series,” said Kershaw, who’s slated to go in Game 5 on Sunday night. “I know that we’ve got to win three more games and that starts with tomorrow.”
And with what lies ahead for the Dodgers, Kershaw has to be aware that the window of winning for this particular team is about to slam closed.
As soon as this series is over, six of his teammates become free agents: Justin Turner, Blake Treinen, Joc Pederson, Kiké Hernandez, Pedro Baez and Alex Wood. They were paid $19.8 million this year, prorated based on their anticipated $47.65 million for an entire 162-game season.
After the 2021 season, Kershaw himself will be joined in the opening market by Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager and Chris Taylor. The trio are scheduled to be paid $58.8 million in 2021. Seager is in his last year of arbitration and had been set to make $7.6 million this year if it had been a full season.
That’s more than a third of the current 28-man World Series roster.
In less than a week, the current group of six free agents is heading into an uncertain financial climate due to huge revenue shortfalls from playing a shortened season without fans.
“They could be on the market for a long time,” one baseball executive said.
Yes, in July the Dodgers signed Mookie Betts to a 12-year contract extension worth $365 million, but even the team with the No. 2 prorated payroll in MLB of $107.9 million–about $1.5 million behind the New York Yankees–has already had to make some choices.
This past offseason, before COVID-19 struck and Los Angeles obtained Betts and pitcher David Price from the Boston Red Sox, the Dodgers let starters Rich Hill and Hyun-jin Ryu go to free agency and traded right-hander Kenta Maeda to the Minnesota Twins. These were all valuable components of those L.A. teams that lost in the World Series.
When Price opted out of the season because of COVID, the Dodgers were left paying the price, so to speak, in this Fall Classic.
Once so rich in starting depth they had to put guys like Maeda and Brandon McCarthy in the bullpen during the World Series, the Dodgers are now so short-staffed that manager Dave Roberts used seven pitchers in losing Game 2. This is how times have changed: The Dodgers used only seven pitchers to win the entire 1965 World Series over the Twins in seven games.
In the next three games, the Dodgers have Walker Buehler, Julio Urias and Kershaw set to start. If they don’t run the table, it will be a crapshoot in the final two games with the championship on the line.
The trio of Hill, Maeda and Ryu went a combined 13-5 during the season. Even for those who don’t value win-loss records anymore, it would be nice for L.A. right now to have even one of them.
Still, Roberts said after Wednesday’s Game 2 loss that he felt comfortable with the state of his club’s starting pitching and that the Dodgers were still in control of the series.
“We feel great,” Roberts said. “We’ve got Walker going. We’ve got Julio going. And we’ve got Clayton going. And if you look at the way our relievers are set with an off day [Thursday], we’re in a great spot.”
Asked what might happen if the series comes down to another winner-takes-all Game 7, Roberts said:
“Our goal is for it not to come down to Game 7.”
It’s incumbent, then, for the Dodgers to not go down 3-1 as they did to the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series, having to win the final three games to salvage the pennant.
From the Rays’ perspective, all they have to do is win one of the next three games to put the Dodgers into that pitching dilemma for Games 6 and 7.
“I’d like to win more than one,” Kevin Cash, the manager of the Rays, said with a laugh. “We’ve got to worry about Game 3.”
That’s the here and now for both teams. For the Dodgers it may very well be a last hurrah.
Because of the spreading coronavirus, no one knows at this point how the 2021 baseball season will be played or how many more people than the 11,472 fans who attended Wednesday night’s game at Globe Life Field will be allowed in the stands.
With little to no stadium revenue again, there will be limited money for this offseason’s free agent class. No one knows how many of the Dodgers dirty half-dozen will be back in the white and blue uniforms next season.
Nobody has a crystal ball, acknowledged Stan Kasten, the Dodgers president, before the World Series began.
“Come on, I’m thinking about the next seven games,” he said.
Join Kershaw and try not to think out that far. Just win today, and then tomorrow.