Many World Series have a defining play, the moment that will instantly come to mind when thinking about it in the distant future. While the 2020 World Series had such a play, it went against the Dodgers, the team which won (this is not uncommon, the Rajai Davis home run in game 7 of the 2016 World Series is one other recent example). This year’s series didn’t really have a Kirk Gibson moment for the Dodgers.
However, there is one play which should be remembered with such reverence: Clayton Kershaw stepping backwards. It sounds boring, but that split second led to the end of decades of frustration.
The story of Sisyphus is an overused metaphor, but it’s used so often because it often feels relatable. As the Greek myth goes, Sisyphus, as punishment for his hubris, was sentenced to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a mountain only for it to roll back down before his task was complete. As with many things in life, The Dodgers’ recent playoff runs have evoked such a feeling.
In 2016, the Dodgers reached the NLCS, only for their boulder to be sent back down the mountain by a team of destiny on their way to erasing their own Sisyphean struggles. In 2017, the Dodgers came tantalizingly close to the mountaintop – a 78% chance to win the series according to Championship Win Probability – only for the boulder to be kicked back down by a team not playing by the rules. In 2018, they overcame their regular season underperformance only to run into one of the best teams of the modern era. In 2019, they shoved the boulder back down the mountain themselves. Between 2013 and 2019, the Dodgers’ peak Championship Win Probability totaled nearly 250%, but those odds never resulted in the Commissioner’s Trophy returning to Los Angeles.
The Dodgers’ winding path through the 2020 postseason often evoked the metaphor of pushing the boulder as well. After getting shut down by Bryse Wilson in game four of the NLCS and falling behind in the opening innings of game 5, the Dodgers had a 5% chance to win the NLCS. Their World Series odds were significantly lower than where they started the season; the rock was back where it started. Mookie Betts and the Dodger pitching staff picked up the boulder and carried it back up, the Dodgers won the pennant once again.
But then, disaster. The boulder hurtled backwards. As a result of the Dodgers’ literal comedy of errors to end game 4, their World Series win odds fell from 84% to a near coin-flip. The final play lowered the Dodgers’ odds of winning the title by 29%. It was the most impactful play in Dodger history – more than a negative Gibson – and had the potential to haunt the franchise forever. If the Dodgers lost the series, it would have been their Bill Buckner play with multiple Bills Buckner.
Standing between the rapidly descending boulder and the bottom of the mountain, as he so often has, was Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw can probably relate to the Sisyphus metaphor more than anybody. While most of Kershaw’s previous playoff struggles were the result of a human being asked to do inhuman things, the results were not always as consistent as they needed to be. Kershaw’s game 5 start was his chance to erase all of that, moving his own personal boulder closer to the peak after it had slid backwards so many times.
In the first few innings of the start, Kershaw was not pitching to his usual standards. After blowing Rays away with his slider for the entirety of his excellent game one outing, the pitch didn’t have the same bite five days later. Kershaw was also struggling with his command, and the Rays were responding with loud contact. This is where many of Kershaw’s bad playoff starts would spiral out of control. In the regular season he often rescued starts in similar situations, but in the postseason those starts frequently resulted in Dodger losses.
Though the Dodgers jumped to an early 3-0 lead in the top of the second inning, Kershaw gave two of those runs back in the third. The fourth inning started inauspiciously as well. Manny Margot drew a leadoff walk. He stole second, and in an infuriating replay of the previous night’s debacle, the throw tipped off of Chris Taylor’s glove and rolled away. Margot advanced to third. Kershaw then walked Hunter Renfroe after getting ahead 0-2. Kershaw’s inability to put away batters in this game was looming large.
With runners on the corners and no outs, and with the tying run 90 feet away, Kershaw began to claw back. Joey Wendle popped up a 1-0 inside fastball for the first out, then Willy Adames flailed at a curveball that was never in the strike zone for the second. Kevin Kiermaier, who homered off of Kershaw in game 1, stepped into the batter’s box and fouled off a middle-middle first pitch fastball. As the speedy Margot peered at Kershaw’s stretch from third for the fourteenth time that inning, he sensed an opening. With Kershaw’s back turned, Margot broke for home. The entire series was in the balance.
Kershaw stretched. There were runners on the corners with two outs. The runner on third broke for home. Kershaw stepped off the rubber, avoiding a balk. He threw home. His throw was slightly high and up the first base line, requiring the catcher to make a perfect tag, which he did. The runner was out.
That sequence of events, while sounding extremely familiar, happened in the above play in 2015, ironically against one of the Dodgers’ previous tormentors. This was the only other attempted straight steal of home against Kershaw in his 13 year career. After game 5, Kershaw credited the play for preparing him for this moment. It helped him identify one of his weak spots.
Five years later, it was Margot’s turn to try to pick Kershaw’s pocket. Unlike Carlos Gomez, Margot went while Kershaw’s arms were outstretched, his shoulders blinding any hope of peripheral vision. Margot was further up the line when he broke, but unlike Gomez he did not hesitate as he ran. His execution of the steal attempt was better.
The first person to notice Margot’s dash home was Max Muncy:
You can see Muncy pointing in the GIF above, and you can hear him yelling in the video. In his interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Kershaw was asked if he would have heard Muncy (which happened before the point) if the game took place in a more traditional World Series environment, a stadium packed with fans. Kershaw didn’t know. It may have changed the tide of the series, just one more strange moment in a season absolutely full of them.
After Muncy yelled, it was Kershaw’s turn to react. With the pressure of the entire game and possibly the entire series on his back, hinging on this moment, the first thing Kershaw needed to do was make sure he didn’t balk. Only then could he try to get Margot out:
Kershaw’s instincts here are absolutely incredible. Every fiber of his being must have been screaming “THROW HOME.” Kershaw hasn’t faced this situation in five years, and needed to do everything exactly right in the highest leverage moment of his career. Before he threw forward, he had to step backward. He did.
If Kershaw followed natural human instinct and threw the ball without stepping off the rubber, the play would have resulted in a balk. Margot would have scored the tying run and Renfroe would have advanced to second. Kiermaier, the only Ray to hurt Kershaw in game one and one of the only non-Randy Arozarena Rays to hit well in this series would have been batting with the go-ahead run on second.
Though the star of the play is Kershaw, Austin Barnes‘ tag deserves attention too. Barnes’ ability to catch a slightly off-line throw and get the tag down was more notable after Will Smith failed to do the same (with a worse throw) in the decisive moment the day before. Barnes’ tag, with Margot hurtling down the line towards him, was perfect.
With all three of the ingredients (Muncy’s alertness, Kershaw’s throw, and Barnes’ tag) put together, this was the final result:
Margot was out by inches.
Simply put, this play was the single most clutch moment of Clayton Kershaw’s career, and one of the most clutch Dodger moments in franchise history. Previous playoff pressure situations often resulted in Kershaw not performing up to expectations, his teammates letting him down, or both. In order to get Margot out, those previous trends had to reverse course.
Kershaw had to be alert enough to react to Margot running, when it would be understandable if he was focused on trying to make a perfect pitch without his best stuff. Once alerted to the situation by his teammates, he needed to fight his urge to immediately throw in order to step off and prevent a balk. Unlike so many other situations in the past, Kershaw executed perfectly and his teammates did too. The course of the entire series was changed as a result.
After the play at the plate, Kershaw retired the next five batters in order before being relieved by Dustin May. Muncy extended the lead by demolishing a baseball. The team never looked back. Two days later, the Dodgers pushed their boulder to the top of the mountain.