CHICAGO — With his hands on his knees and his back to home plate, Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw studied the flight of the ball to center field in the seventh inning. He watched as Joc Pederson backed up, and backed up more, and then finally caught a breath-holding drive by Cubs second baseman Javier Baez just in front of the Wrigley Field ivy.
Then Kershaw exhaled. As he walked off the mound, Kershaw flashed a sheepish grin, knowing he had gotten away with one. Criticized for his past postseason performances, Kershaw, one of the best pitchers in the sport, has taken his game to another level this October.
His left arm rescued the Dodgers from the brink of elimination in a National League division series. And in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against Chicago on Sunday night, Kershaw delivered his best postseason start, guiding the Dodgers to a 1-0 win that evened the best-of-seven series at a game apiece. Game 3 is scheduled for Tuesday night in Los Angeles.
Kershaw spun seven scoreless innings against the Cubs. He has thrown 19 ⅓ innings over the past 10 days in two playoff series. He fired 84 pitches on Sunday. He retired the first 14 batters he faced. He allowed only three base runners. He dominated.
But in a tense game that featured only one run, thanks to Adrian Gonzalez’s homer in the second inning, a small mistake could have tied the game.
The Dodgers, however, survived. Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, another hero of the previous round, recorded a six-out save with ease, jetting 95-mile-per-hour fastballs that cut past the Cubs’ bats. The Dodgers’ pitching duo had no match.
Kershaw’s first run through the Cubs’ lineup was a clinic in hitting spots. He placed fastballs on the edge of the plate, in and out. The Cubs did little to help their cause, passively watching Kershaw carve up the strike zone. In the third inning, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras watched all three strikes from Kershaw, who finished with six strikeouts.
The Cubs’ approach against Kershaw improved as the game progressed. Baez broke up Kershaw’s bid for a no-hitter with a single to center field with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. Kershaw, with a single in the top of the inning off Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks, had reached base before any Cub.
After Baez’s single, Contreras also singled. But Kershaw got Jason Heyward to pop out to end the threat. Kershaw’s first three-ball count was against Dexter Fowler in the sixth inning.
Hendricks, on the other hand, was shaky. He uncharacteristically walked four batters, but he did not break, allowing three hits in five and one-third innings. The lone run he yielded was Gonzalez’s homer.
When Hendricks, who led the majors in E.R.A. this season, ran into trouble again in the sixth, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon pulled at the short playoff leash. Gonzalez drew a walk, and then Josh Reddick smacked a single to left field. Maddon emerged from the dugout and called on the right-handed reliever Carl Edwards Jr. to face Pederson, who hits from the left side.
The move might have appeared puzzling at first, but Edwards was highly effective against left-handed batters this season. The move worked because of Baez, who has gained much attention for his savvy postseason play.
Pederson hit a soft line drive at Baez, who let it drop to the ground. As a result, Baez could turn two because both runners on base now had to run.
Baez threw to shortstop Addison Russell at second to get Reddick on a forceout, and then the Cubs caught Gonzalez in a rundown between second and third base. Before the game, Maddon extolled the baseball smarts of Baez, who stole home plate in Game 1.
“It’s so hard to teach how quickly his mind works,” Maddon said, later adding, “He sees things.”
And for all of Kershaw’s brilliance in the regular season during his career, three Cy Young Awards and a Most Valuable Player Award, his career playoff track record has been rough: 3-6 and a 4.79 E.R.A. entering Sunday.
So when Kershaw took the mound in the seventh inning with a one-run lead, there may have been some nervousness among Dodgers fans. Kershaw walked Anthony Rizzo to start the inning, and Jansen began warming in the bullpen.
Kershaw then struck out Ben Zobrist, who hit a few hard line drives against him earlier in the game, and got Russell to fly out. Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts emerged from the dugout to talk to Kershaw. After a quick conversation, Roberts left Kershaw in to face Baez.
On a 1-0, 93-m.p.h. fastball, Baez lined the ball hard to deep center field. Fans at Wrigley Field rose, thinking Baez had saved the day again. But Pederson ran back to catch it and pointed to Kershaw.
Roberts laughed heartily as Kershaw entered the dugout. Kershaw plopped down on the bench, hung his head and stuck out his tongue, tired after a gusty outing. The pitching coach, Rick Honeycutt, patted him on the shoulder.