WASHINGTON (AP) - A little past midnight in Game 5 of the NL Division Series, Clayton Kershaw emerged from the bullpen to pitch in relief for the first time in seven years.
Two outs later, the only save of his major league career in the books, Kershaw's arms were raised and teammates were rushing to celebrate with a guy whose postseason performances have never carried the luster of his regular-season success.
Coming in after closer Kenley Jansen issued a pair of one-out walks in the ninth inning, Kershaw got Daniel Murphy to pop out, then struck out Wilmer Difo to end it. That finished the Los Angeles Dodgers' 4-3 victory over the Washington Nationals that decided their NL Division Series in the wee hours of Friday.
The Dodgers won the last two games of the best-of-five NLDS and now head to the NL Championship Series to face the Chicago Cubs. That opens at Wrigley Field on Saturday night.
"We're all exhausted after every game, even if you're sitting on the bench," Kershaw said. "These games are such grinds that it's just such a relieving feeling when they're over and you win. It's a little bit of an adrenaline rush right there."
The Nationals, meanwhile, still have never won a postseason series.
Kershaw worked two days after throwing 110 pitches over 6 2/3 innings in Game 4, when he had the benefit of only three days' rest following his win in Game 1 against the Nationals.
Several hours before Thursday's game began, Dodgers first-year manager Dave Roberts was asked whether Kershaw might be available at all -- maybe just for one out, say?
"No," came Roberts' reply. "Absolutely not."
Turned out the three-time NL Cy Young Award winner would get a pair of outs in his first relief appearance since the 2009 playoffs.
"Clayton came to me in the seventh," Roberts explained, "and said that he had an inning if I needed it."
Kershaw came in after Jansen threw a career-high 51 pitches while getting a career-high seven outs after entering in the seventh. Jansen walked Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth with one out in the ninth -- and that's when Roberts went to Kershaw.
"That's awesome by Kersh, just have my back, man," Jansen said.
Kershaw wound up with his second pro save. His other one came on Aug. 19, 2006, in the Gulf Coast League in a game vs. the Nationals' rookie club.
And his Kershaw's catcher that day a decade ago?
Amazingly, none other than Jansen, who didn't begin pitching professionally until three years later.
LA's scoring all came in a four-run seventh off six Nationals pitchers, including Joc Pederson's homer off Max Scherzer and Justin Turner's two-run triple off Shawn Kelley.
Washington was leading 1-0 in the sixth, when Werth walked and Ryan Zimmerman smacked a two-out double to left. But third-base coach Bob Henley -- whose propensity for waving runners home led to a popular T-shirt among Nationals players that says, "Send `em short, send `em tall, send `em one, send `em all" -- sent Werth and saw him get thrown out easily on shortstop Corey Seager's relay.
Wasn't even close.
And in the sort of blink-and-you-missed-it game-shifting sequence, Werth's inning-ending, overzealous bid to score was followed immediately by Pederson's homer on Scherzer's first -- and, it turned out, only -- pitch of the seventh. Pederson connected with a 96 mph slider, sending it to the opposite field and over Werth's head in left.
That began a rally that included a pinch-hit RBI single by 37-year-old pinch hitter Carlos Ruiz, helping LA go up 4-1.
Then came pinch hitter Chris Heisey's two-run homer in the Washington seventh.
Then came Jansen.
And then came Kershaw.
The West champion Dodgers are back in the NLCS for the first time since 2013, but they've lost in their past three trips to that round, failing to make it to the World Series since they won their most recent championship in 1988.
The East champion Nationals, however, are one-and-done in the playoffs yet again. They won their third NL East title in the past five years, but each time were eliminated in the NLDS. Washington was beaten in five games in 2012 by the St. Louis Cardinals after leading 6-0, then 7-5 entering the ninth, at home in Game 5, and in four games in 2014 by the San Francisco Giants.
Take it back further, and a baseball club based in the nation's capital hasn't won a postseason series since the old Senators were the 1924 World Series champions.
"I'm not ready to go home," Nationals first-year manager Dusty Baker said. "I haven't been home since February, but I would have gladly stayed a couple more weeks."