The ghosts of Clayton Kershaw’s past and the realities of his present have awkwardly commingled this October, saddling the decorated Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander with a burden as outsized as Justin Turner’s beard.

Kershaw, who turned 30 shortly after Opening Day, plainly isn’t the same pitcher he was nine years ago, when he stumbled through his first postseason stinker, or five years ago, when the St. Louis Cardinals blasted him for seven runs in Game 6 of the NLCS, or even last year, when the Houston Astros slapped him around in Game 6 of the World Series, further reinforcing his reputation for producing October disappointments. “Maybe one of these days I won’t fail, we won’t fail, and we’ll win one of these things,” Kershaw famously told USA Today after the Astros cruised to a 5-1 victory in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, with his lifetime postseason ERA sitting at 4.35 across 122 innings.

Nevertheless, Kershaw’s been tasked once again this October with trying to debunk his postseason narrative and remove the lone blemish from his Hall of Fame resume. This could be his last shot in Los Angeles, too, as he can opt out of his contract next month.

It doesn’t help that Kershaw’s less equipped than ever to do it this year. Though his regular-season numbers were hardly cause for alarm, signs of decline were abundant. Across 26 starts in 2018, Kershaw posted his worst ERA (2.73), WHIP (1.04), and swinging-strike rate (11 percent) since 2010, his lowest strikeout rate (23.9 percent) since his rookie year, and his worst average exit velocity (87.1 miles per hour) and expected weighted on-base average (.278) of the StatCast era. His velocity tailed off dramatically, too, with his four-seamer averaging just 91.39 mph, according to Brooks Baseball, a career low and a drop-off of nearly two full ticks from last year.

“It’s not like I’m trying to pitch to contact more,” Kershaw told reporters Tuesday, per ASAP Sports. “It’s just happening.”

Certainly, the Dodgers’ decision to go with Hyun-Jin Ryu for Game 1 of the NLDS seemed to reveal their own recalibrated expectations for Kershaw, who started the club’s first postseason game in each of the previous five years. They didn’t not have faith in him, but they’d finally reached a point where talent could no longer trump a damning body of work. So, they went with Ryu in Game 1. And he was superb.

The following evening, however, Kershaw upstaged him with eight scoreless innings against the Atlanta Braves, and after navigating another sublime outing Wednesday against the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 5 of the NLCS – which led the Dodgers to 5-2 victory at Chavez Ravine – the three-time Cy Young Award winner has now officially built the foundation for a redemptive postseason. Even with his stuff on the wane, Kershaw’s finding a way to erode the narrative, and with the Dodgers now one win shy of a second straight pennant, he may well get the chance to ease the franchise’s 30-year-old burden, too.

“No disrespect to (the World Series-winning team of) 1988, we hear about that a lot,” Kershaw said. “And I’ve said it before, but we are sick of it. And it’s up to us to do something about it, obviously. We need to create some of our own history, for sure.”

Harry How / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Kershaw adopted a different approach against the Brewers on Wednesday than he used in Game 1, when he allowed five runs in three innings, served up a solo home run to a relief pitcher, and watched his defense implode (Yasmani Grandal, in particular, forgot how to baseball). This time, he mixed in his curveball much more frequently to keep Milwaukee’s righty-heavy lineup off-balance, using the pitch more often (21.4 percent) than in any start since before the All-Star break. The more balanced pitch distribution contributed to a grand total of 19 swinging strikes, one more than Kershaw’s previous season high set back on Opening Day. To put it bluntly, the strategy worked.

For seven innings in Game 5, Kershaw flummoxed the Brewers, allowing just one run on three hits and a pair of walks while notching nine strikeouts before bequeathing the bullpen a 5-1 lead. After issuing a two-out walk to Ryan Braun in the top of the third – loading the bases for Jesus Aguilar – Kershaw didn’t allow another baserunner, fanning Milwaukee’s cleanup hitter to escape the jam, and then retiring the next dozen batters he faced. According to Game Score, which quantifies the strength of a pitcher’s outing, it was Kershaw’s third-best start of 2018. And only once before, in Game 2 of last year’s NLDS, has Kershaw authored a finer start in the playoffs. (Kershaw, who owns a lifetime .209 on-base percentage, also drew a pair of walks for good measure, giving him three multi-walk games for his career.)

“Yeah, it’s just a classic case of he executed a lot of pitches today,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “He didn’t execute in Milwaukee and he executed today.”

Even with that ugly, abbreviated outing at Miller Park in Game 1, Kershaw now owns a 2.50 ERA with a 0.83 WHIP through three starts this postseason. In 18 innings, he’s allowed one home run while holding opponents to a .177 batting average. (He also did this to Erik Kratz on Thursday.) And if all goes well for the Dodgers, Kershaw’s next start will be in Game 1 of the World Series, on five days’ rest.

So, while the rewrite is happening much later than many expected, Kershaw’s right in the midst of revising his postseason legacy, and transforming it into something more befitting a player of his ilk. All that remains is a new final chapter – one that doesn’t end with him somberly owning up to his own failures. And though he isn’t quite the indomitable stud he once was, he’s proving right now that he has it in him.

After all, he’s still Clayton Kershaw.

“He’s our guy, he’s our horse,” Turner said after Wednesday’s performance. “He’s the guy we always want to have the ball and we know when he’s out there we have a really good chance to win a ballgame.”

Jonah Birenbaum is theScore’s senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.

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