LOS ANGELES — It was early Wednesday afternoon, just the third inning, but the capacity crowd at Dodger Stadium had sensed the moment — perhaps because it looked so familiar: Clayton Kershaw on the mound in a ritual case of October peril.
The bases were loaded, with two outs, and the Dodgers already trailing the Milwaukee Brewers by a run. Kershaw, facing Jesus Aguilar, got two quick strikes. He delivered his next pitch, then another, and another again.
It did not matter what Kershaw threw — his signature curveball, his biting slider or a four-seam fastball. Aguilar got a piece of each one, fouling off four pitches and spitting on another.
As he did, the crowd stood and waved its blue towels, not only urging on Kershaw but also trying to ward off the ghosts of his playoff past: Matt Adams, Yuli Gurriel, Daniel Murphy, Carlos Ruiz and Brandon Woodruff.
Finally, Kershaw kicked and delivered an eighth pitch — a slider at Aguilar’s back foot that he swung over. When the ball landed in catcher Austin Barnes’s glove, the crowd roared and Kershaw, the workaday star, pumped his fist.
Coming through the harrowing at-bat both reinvigorated Kershaw and bolstered the Dodgers, who built on their dramatic and draining 13-inning victory just a few hours earlier to beat back the Brewers, 5-2, and take a three-games-to-two lead in the National League Championship Series.
Kershaw, in what could be the final game of his Dodgers career, retired 13 batters in a row beginning with the strikeout of Aguilar, giving cover to his teammates before their bats got going against Woodruff — who had homered off Kershaw in the series opener and then went toe-to-toe with him on the mound.
Barnes drove home Chris Taylor with a single to tie the score at 1-1 in the fifth and Max Muncy put the Dodgers ahead by 2-1 in the sixth before they pulled away against the Brewers’ weary relievers.
The series now heads back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Friday night and, if necessary, Game 7 on Saturday. But first there will be a cherished day of rest on Thursday.
Both teams arrived at the stadium on Wednesday morning with bleary eyes and exhausted bullpens, hoping, it seemed, for deep turns from their starters, Kershaw and Wade Miley, the Brewers left-hander who had spun five and two-thirds scoreless innings against the Dodgers in Game 2.
But this has been a season increasingly defined by creative uses of pitchers and the refashioning of traditional roles. After Miley walked the left-handed leadoff hitter Cody Bellinger on five pitches to begin the game, Brewers Manager Craig Counsell strode to the mound.
He signaled to the bullpen.
With the platoon-happy Dodgers having stacked their lineup with six right-handed hitters in anticipation of facing Miley, Counsell called on the right-handed Woodruff. The move also allowed the Brewers avoid using Miley and Jhoulys Chacin, who would now be their Game 7 starter, on three days’ rest.
The plan worked brilliantly at first.
The Brewers jumped to a 1-0 lead in the third inning on a Lorenzo Cain double over the head of center fielder Cody Bellinger. Woodruff kept the Dodgers in check, getting Manny Machado to hit into a pair of double plays — once shattering his bat.
In the fifth, though, the Dodgers broke through, helped by some shakiness from the Brewers’ defense. Taylor reached on an infield single up the middle and advanced to second when shortstop Orlando Arcia’s ambitious throw skipped past Aguilar. Taylor stole third on the next pitch, sliding in without a throw, and came home two batters later when Barnes grounded a 0-1 slider up the middle to make the score 1-1.
The Dodgers took the lead in the sixth, which started with Justin Turner lining a single in front of hard-charging Cain in center field. After Joc Pederson struck out, Machado was hit by a pitch, and up came Muncy, who had parlayed a nonroster invitation to spring training into a 35-home run season and a regular spot in the lineup.
Muncy, one of two left-handers in the lineup, along with Bellinger, stroked a fastball through a hole in the shifted defense and into left field to give the Dodgers a 2-1 lead. It also spelled the end for Woodruff, who left after having thrown 70 pitches.
He was replaced by Corbin Burnes, who had pitched two innings on Tuesday night and immediately struck out Taylor in the sixth. But the next batter, the pinch-hitter Yasiel Puig, lined a 2-2 fastball — the fifth consecutive one — up the middle to score Machado easily. When the Dodgers added two more runs in the seventh against Joakim Soria — who was pitching for the third time in less than 48 hours — it was enough of a cushion to turn the ball over to the bullpen.
If it was Kershaw’s last game in a Dodger uniform — he said Tuesday he had not made a decision on whether he would opt out of the remaining two years and $65 million remaining on his contract — it was surely a gratifying one. His final line: one run allowed on three hits over seven innings, with nine strikeouts.
Kershaw, 30, is a fitting frontman for the Dodgers, who have won six consecutive division titles and eight in the last 11 seasons, but are looking for their first championship in 30 years.
He has been the best pitcher of his generation, putting together a certain Hall of Fame career with three Cy Young Awards and winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 2014.
But both the ace and his team have been left wanting in October. He has been beaten three times in elimination games, and last year he lost leads of 4-0 and 7-4 in a pivotal Game 5 of the World Series.
“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 a the team that we are,” Kershaw said on Tuesday. “I think there becomes a little bit more pressure, for sure.”
A day later, Kershaw bore that burden admirably, pushing the Dodgers a step closer to where they would like to go.
Major League Baseball earlier Wednesday fined Machado — $10,000, according to USA Today — for what it deemed a dirty play on Tuesday night when he kicked Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar while running out a ground ball.