The best pitcher of his generation rolled into Miller Park on Friday evening, tasked with stealing a game from the hottest team in baseball and the game’s most fearsome bullpen. Four and a half hours later, Kershaw was backed up against a blue NLCS-branded screen, trying to explain to a phalanx of microphones and cameras what went wrong.
“In the postseason, a lot of crazy stuff happens,” Kershaw said. “Our team showed a lot of fight today.”
In short, it happened again. Kershaw once again ran into the one blemish on his Hall of Fame career—a rocky postseason outing—as he surrendered five runs in three-plus innings. The Dodgers, who fell apart defensively around their starter early, clawed back into the game late, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate in both the eighth and ninth innings and stranding the tying run at third against Brewers right-hander Corey Knebel. The Brewers won their 12th game in a row, dating back to September 23, and went up 1-0 in the NLCS. If they win on Saturday, they’ll be two games up in a league championship series for the first time in franchise history.
Kershaw had cruised easily through his first time down Milwaukee’s lineup, stretching his postseason scoreless streak to 14 innings, dating back to Game 7 of last year’s World Series. Manny Machado then bounced a line drive off the top of the left-center-field wall and into Milwaukee’s bullpen to stake Kershaw to a 1-0 lead.
Before the game, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of Milwaukee’s bullpen: “It puts them in a tougher position to fire those bullets if we have a lead. . . . We’re trying to beat the starter.”
The Dodgers had beaten Milwaukee’s starter, Gio Gonzalez, who departed after just two innings with the Brewers a run in arrears. Brandon Woodruff took over, pitched the top of the third, and somewhat improbably, came out to take his turn at bat in the bottom of the inning. Then this happened.
Woodruff, who turned around and screamed at his own dugout after the ball cleared the fence, seemed as surprised as anyone.
“You don’t know in your wildest dreams that that’s going to happen, to be able to get an at-bat off Kershaw and hit a home run,” Woodruff said. “But I rounded first, and once I knew it was gone, it was just one of those moments where you’re not really thinking, and I just let some emotion out.”
Woodruff played a little outfield in college and has hit the occasional dinger throughout his professional career, but come on. A relief pitcher—a left-handed relief pitcher, no less—taking Kershaw deep was unthinkable until it happened, even under the Laws of Playoff Kershaw. And it opened up a portal to dark places.
Even after the next two batters, Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, reached with no outs in the inning, Kershaw could’ve, even should’ve, escaped without further damage. Then Yasmani Grandal allowed his second passed ball in three innings to let Cain and Yelich advance, and later in that at-bat, Grandal committed catcher’s interference, nullifying a spectacular diving catch by David Freese and loading the bases. Cain scored on a sacrifice fly a batter later.
Even then, it was only a one-run game, and while Milwaukee’s bullpen is spectacular, it’s not invulnerable. The Dodgers were still very much in the fight. But they spent the last two innings of Kershaw’s stint on the mound playing sloppy, aimless baseball, with the vacant weariness of a parent who’s too tired after a shift at work to play with their kids. Woodruff struck out all three hitters he faced in the fourth inning, and then the first three Brewers batters reached in the bottom of the frame, with two of them scoring when Chris Taylor misplayed a ball in left field. Kershaw was charged with five runs, four of them earned, and left the game without recording an out in the fourth, marking the shortest postseason start of his career.
“It didn’t feel out of control,” Kershaw said. “I just gave up a few hits.”
The three errors and two passed balls don’t excuse the fact that Kershaw allowed two walks and six hits—including, it bears repeating, a home run to a relief pitcher.
“The errors affected the game,” Roberts said. “But as far as Clayton, I just think it was poor execution. And I thought the stuff was good, but he just made mistakes in the strike zone, and defensively, again, we didn’t do him any favors.”
Once again, Kershaw didn’t get the breaks, and it wasn’t all his fault. Grandal and Justin Turner combined to go 1-for-9 with six strikeouts and three errors between them. Not that that matters, though. It’s never been all Kershaw’s fault, and that’s never really mattered in the past.
Kershaw’s spectacular regular-season performance, combined with American sports culture’s insatiable thirst for contrarianism and its desire to tear down giants, meant that Kershaw was always expected to be so good he wouldn’t need the breaks. So good he’d overcome any of the inexplicable random bounces that not only populate the sport but define it.
Short of winning a World Series, which depends more on Kershaw’s teammates’ performance than on Kershaw himself, he might never kick his reputation for postseason underperformance. Despite his youth, Kershaw is no longer the pitcher he was five years ago—he doesn’t throw as hard, doesn’t strike out as many batters, can’t pitch as many innings. Even in great moments like his Game 2 strangulation of Atlanta in the NLDS, his stuff doesn’t overawe hitters anymore. He relies on precision and savvy, counterpunching like Greg Maddux did in his later years. When it works, it’s clinical. When it doesn’t, he grooves a center-cut fastball to a relief pitcher and gives up a home run.
One thing that’s starting to stand out about Kershaw is how long this has been happening. He pitched in his first NLCS 10 years ago—this is his sixth trip to the second round of the playoffs. He’s thrown almost exactly as many postseason innings as Josh Hader has thrown total, playoffs and regular season. Kershaw’s first NLCS team, in 2008, featured Maddux, Jeff Kent, Andruw Jones, Derek Lowe, and Esteban Loaiza.
And yet if the narrative that Kershaw can’t get it done in the postseason is wearing on the 30-year-old Texan, you can’t tell it by looking at him. Facing those cameras, he only looked tired insofar as he’d just flown across the country and played a baseball game, only looked disheveled insofar as he’d just hopped out of the shower. He was calm, straightforward, and pragmatic and even cracked a couple wry smiles.
Maybe it’s because he knows he’ll get another chance. If the Dodgers win even one of the next three games, Kershaw will likely return to the mound at Dodger Stadium for Game 5, and we’ll get to do this all over again.