By Molly Knight
When I was 13 years old, my mother left me at home alone for the first time in charge of my 8-year-old sister. Now, before you report her to Child Protective Services, know that the poor woman was probably just headed down the street to the bank or the grocery store, or running some other mom errand to help keep us fed and sheltered. And also this was the '90s and parent-shaming blogs didn't exist yet.
Anyway, about 15 minutes after she left, my sister and I were horsing around in the backyard when the phone rang. Now at that point in my life, there was nothing more exciting than rehashing the school day with my girlfriends on three-way calling, and failing to reach the phone before the answering machine picked up felt like a fate worse than being the last person in the eighth grade to hit puberty. And so, instead of running to the phone through the back door, I decided to take a shortcut through the sliding glass door on the side of the house. Except that my rabbit's cage was in front of that glass door waiting to be cleaned, and I ran smack into it, slicing my knee open clear to the bone. I remember grabbing a paper towel and holding it to the wound and my sister shouting, "It's not working!" I remember trying not to cry. And I remember my mom coming home 10 minutes later, finding me in a pool of my own blood on the kitchen floor and looking at me with equal parts terror and guilt, probably wishing we could both be sent away to our rooms forever, except that we had to go to the emergency room, and the skin covering my patella had to be stitched back together, from left to right.
I thought of this shining moment earlier today when I sat down to write about Clayton Kershaw's season. As some of you might have heard, Kershaw wasn't so great in the playoffs in 2013, or in 2014, despite being the best regular season pitcher in baseball both seasons. Last year, the Cardinals eliminated the Dodgers in four games, and Kershaw took losses in two of them. Pitcher wins and losses don't mean much, except when you're the best pitcher of your generation and you lose elimination games, two years in a row, to the same godforsaken team in excruciating fashion, and have to spend 12 months dealing with hecklers and keyboard warriors calling you a choker when you are perhaps one of the most mentally tough athletes on the planet, to the point where your manager knows he is going to have to fight to take the ball out of your hands and send you to the showers every fifth day, even when it appears you are about to vomit and pass out on the mound from heat stroke.
After last season's October debacle, Kershaw wanted for it to be October so badly this past April that he ran into his own sliding glass door and clipped his knee on a rabbit's cage (metaphorically at least). During the first few months of the 2015 season, Kershaw posted a 3.86 ERA -- decent by an average pitcher's standard but ZOMG THE SKY IS FALLING territory for him. Columns pondering the End of Clayton Kershaw began lighting up the Internet. His peripherals suggested that his ERA would regress back to where it normally sits, on or below 2, but that didn't change the fact that he looked absolutely miserable on the mound as if he knew in his bones that even if he shoved those games down everyone's throat it didn't matter. He'd already won four straight ERA titles, and it didn't protect him from the snickering that he fell apart when it counted. Every pitch seemed to come with its own baggage, as if it resented having been thrown so far away from the postseason.
And then something changed. From June 1 through the end of the season, Kershaw pitched 167 1/3 innings and posted a 1.45 ERA. He struck out 218, on the way to becoming the first pitcher to punch out 300 hitters since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling did it in 2002. Over the last four months of the season, opponents managed just a .460 OPS against him. And if you're into advanced statistic sorcery, those numbers show that Kershaw had a far superior season to his teammate Zack Greinke and Cubs super ace Jake Arrieta -- the two presumptive Cy Young front-runners. But here we are on the eve of the Dodgers division series against the Mets and no one is talking about Kershaw's incredible season: They are merely trying to predict when he will fall apart.
So let's take a closer look at his past two postseason stints and see if we can figure out what happened.
Game 1 of the 2013 NLDS vs the Braves in Atlanta
Kershaw's line: 7IP 3H 1ER 3BB 12K. Dodgers win 6-1
This is a very Kershaw kind of outing, except for the walks. But what the box score doesn't tell you is that Atlanta had a chance in this game. Because Kershaw's fastball command during the first four innings was mediocre, the Braves made him throw 77 pitches to get the first 12 outs. If you watched Arrieta in the NL Wild Card Game on Wednesday night, you know that he shut out the Pirates, but you also could see that while he looked untouchable in innings 1-5, he appeared mortal after that. The Pirates had no shortage of baserunners in the later innings, but when it was time to cash in, their hitters smoked balls right at Cubs defenders. Starling Marte came up with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the sixth and hit a ball 109 miles per hour. According to Daren Willman of Baseball Savant, the league batting average on balls hit that hard is .720. Marte grounded into a double play because baseball is impossible and also the worst. Arrieta was dominant -- but he was also lucky. And in the playoffs where everyone is good, the luckiest team is often the one left standing.
Because his fastball wasn't working in Atlanta that night, Kershaw decided to ditch it and pitch backward. It worked. Using mostly his curveball and slider, Kershaw struck out nine of the final 11 batters he faced. The Dodgers took the first game of the series, and with it, home-field advantage back from the Braves.
Game 4 of the 2013 NLDS vs the Braves in Los Angeles
Kershaw's line: 6IP 3H, 0ER, 1BB, 6K; Dodgers win 4-3, advance to the NLCS
This will forever be remembered as the game where Juan Uribe hit the eighth-inning come-from-behind home run to send the Dodgers to the NLCS, but Uribe isn't in that position if Kershaw doesn't take the ball on three days rest for the first time in his career and post six scoreless innings. With the series tied 1-1 heading into Game 3 and Hyun-Jin Ryu on the mound, it was generally assumed that if the Dodgers fell behind 2-1 in the series that Don Mattingly would bring Kershaw back on short rest to try to save the season. The Dodgers won the game, but manager Don Mattingly was so uncomfortable with the possibility that the Braves could tie the series against No. 4 starter Ricky Nolasco to force a Game 5 across the country in Atlanta that he brought his ace back on short rest despite leading the series two games to one. Kershaw was his usual self and became the first pitcher to go six innings and give up no earned runs on three days' rest since his teammate Josh Beckett did it with the Marlins in the 2003 World Series 10 years earlier.
But he left the game with the Dodgers and Braves tied at two because of two bizarre Adrian Gonzalez errors. Still, the Dodgers won the game thanks to Uribe, and they advanced to the NLCS to play the Cardinals. If they voted on MVPs in division series, then Kershaw likely would have been named MVP. He pitched 13 innings in two Dodger victories and gave up just one earned run.
Game 2 of the 2013 NLCS versus the Cardinals, in St. Louis
Kershaw's line: 6IP, 2H, 0ER, 1BB, 5K; Dodgers lose 1-0
After dropping the first game of the NLCS in a brutal loss in the 13th inning, Kershaw took the ball in Game 2 looking to even the series. He was terrific again, tossing six innings and surrendering no earned runs. But he was pulled for a pinch hitter in the top of the seventh because the Dodgers trailed 1-0 after a passed ball and were desperate for offense. Kershaw had thrown only 72 pitches. Had the error never happened, he would have stayed in the game and potentially pitched a shutout to even the series, and this article might not exist. Instead, Dodgers bats remained silent, in large part because their best hitter, Hanley Ramirez, had his rib broken by a Joe Kelly fastball in his first at-bat in Game 1 the day before. Kershaw took the loss despite not giving up an earned run.
At this point in the 2013 playoffs, Kershaw had thrown 19 innings, struck out 23 and given up just one earned run. Through three starts, his playoff ERA sat at 0.43. And then everything went to hell.
Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS vs. the Cardinals in St. Louis
Kershaw's line: 4IP, 10H, 7ER, 2BB, 5K; Dodgers lose 9-0
Lest you think I am a blind Kershaw apologist in every circumstance, here is my analysis of his performance in this game: WOOF. VOMIT. BAD. BAD. BAD. BAD. Horror show bad. Still the worst game I have ever seen him pitch. You could blame the Dodgers offense for failing to score, again, but it's unreasonable to expect any team to win a game in which their starting pitcher gives up seven runs. Nothing worked. His fastball sat in the middle of the plate, and he couldn't throw either of his breaking pitches for strikes, which is a really bad combination if you are trying to get people out -- but very fun for hitters! The Cardinals teed off on him and advanced to the World Series. The Dodgers went home and cried.
Three months later, I went to Kershaw's house in Dallas to interview him for the book I was writing on the Dodgers and asked him about that game. To my knowledge, he had never talked about it in depth before and hasn't since. He made no excuses:
Me: What do you think about that last game in St. Louis now that you've had three months to think about it?
Kershaw: Yeah. It's tough. It's not easy to digest. That was a tough one for me. We didn't score, but I think if I had pitched better and we felt like we were in the game, we might have. It's never one person's fault but it kind of feels that way for me a little bit. Who knows if we would have won Game 7 or not but it definitely stings for sure. Good motivation.
Me: Have you watched it back?
CK: No, never. I never watch games that I pitch. Watching video? I never watch myself on video.
Me: It didn't seem like -- it just seemed like they kept hitting everything you threw.
CK: I wasn't very sharp. My stuff just wasn't very good that day. That's the way it goes.
Me: Did you feel anything weird in the bullpen that day?
CK: I usually feel the same. It's never like, "Oh my gosh I'm gonna suck," or "Oh my gosh, I'm gonna dominate." But once you get on the mound, it's completely different than anything else. Some day you'll go out there and watch my bullpen and you'll ask if I even made the high school team. I don't throw one strike. A.J. (Ellis) is looking at me like, "What is going on?" But I think he knows now that it really doesn't have any bearing on it. Sometimes it's just really bad for whatever reason. You own up to it. It was my fault. I pitched bad. Bad time to do it. But fortunately for us, we have a great team and we're gonna get another crack at it.
And yes, he got another crack at it!
Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS versus the Cardinals in Los Angeles
Kershaw's line: 6.2IP, 8H, 8ER, 0BB, 10K; Dodgers lose 10-9
In one of the weirdest pitching lines you'll ever see, Kershaw struck out 10 and walked none and still gave up eight earned runs. How did this happen? I believe there is a simple explanation. When I arrived at the Dodger Stadium that day, I remember thinking the Dodgers were in big trouble. L.A. was experiencing a typical October heat wave, and it was roughly 110 degrees on the field at game time. (No, really.) Why did the weather put the Dodgers at a bigger disadvantage than the Cardinals? I didn't expect either pitcher to last six innings in that heat, but I knew Kershaw would try, because he hates to come out of games and the club's bullpen was atrocious. St. Louis didn't have that problem. If Adam Wainwright scuffled in the heat, the Cardinals would just replace him with any one of the 800 live arms in their bullpen and carry on.
When it's that hot in Southern California, Dodger Stadium plays like Coors Field. Many Dodger players believe the state's historic drought has turned the ballpark into a hitter's paradise. There are too many variables and not enough data to prove that hypothesis for certain, but it is indisputable that the ball flies out of that stadium in the heat. Kershaw gave up a first inning solo shot to Randall Grichuk, then retired 16 in a row. His counterpart, the great Wainwright, lasted 4 1/3 innings and gave up six runs. But no one ever brings that up, of course. Because Kershaw took the mound with a 6-2 lead in the seventh and gave up singles to five of the first six hitters he faced. Then, with the score 6-4 and a full count to Matt Carpenter, he piped a fastball and surrendered a bases loaded double off the wall. The stunned stadium fell so silent you could hear St. Louis players screaming before Carpenter's ball even hit the fence. Kershaw left the game trailing 7-6. That pitch to Carpenter was Kershaw's 110th of the day, and most likely his last regardless of the outcome, save for a foul ball. Had he made a better pitch, he would have left the game with a 6-4 lead, and this article would not exist. Rookie Pedro Baez relieved Kershaw and promptly gave up a single and three-run bomb to Matt Holliday to complete the eight-run nightmare innings and give the Cardinals a 10-6 lead. The Dodgers rallied and had the tying run at third base with two out in the ninth, but Yasiel Puig struck out.
The Dodgers had a $236 million dollar payroll in 2014, and exactly one reliever they could rely on: Kenley Jansen. Had the bullpen been solvent, Kershaw would have been lifted after giving up three straight singles to start the seventh. But Mattingly gave his ace the opportunity to try to wiggle out of it, because he had no better options. He was essentially left on a scorching hot hill of dirt to die. Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti would be charged with Kershaw's murder and fired weeks later, in large part for his failure to construct a bullpen that could get more than three outs.
Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS in St. Louis
Kershaw's line: 6IP, 4H, 3ER, 2BB, 9K; Dodgers lose 3-2, and are eliminated
A gut punch. Kershaw came back to pitch on three days rest and was brilliant through six innings, giving up no runs on just one hit and striking out nine.
He took a 2-0 lead into the seventh and surrendered an infield hit, then a single to center. Then he hung a curveball to Matt Adams, and the Cardinals took a 3-2 lead. Was this a choke? Eh. No? It's pretty hard to throw seven innings of shut out ball on three days rest, which was probably what the Dodgers needed since their bullpen consisted of four guys (Brian Wilson, Chris Perez, Brandon League, Jamey Wright) who would never pitch in the majors again. Another thing I don't like about the choke narrative is it does a great disservice to the Cardinals, who I have heard are pretty good at baseball. But rooting people to the top of the ladder with the intention of tearing them down if they slip-up is the American Way.
The good news for Kershaw is we also love redemption. And he will get many more shots at it, because he is only 27 years old and the Dodgers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make the playoffs every year.
Kershaw will take the ball against the Mets in Game 1 of the NLDS at Dodger Stadium on Friday. The forecast shows a high for that day of 100 degrees in Los Angeles. Fortunately for the Dodgers, the game will begin at 6:40 p.m. local time, and the setting sun should take the temperature down a bit as the night progresses.
The club's bullpen is better than it was last year, but it's still not great. Kershaw will try to go at least eight innings, before handing the ball off to Jansen. If he could write the script, Kershaw would of course go nine. The Mets are very good, and Yoenis Cespedes, in particular, is terrifying. Tossing a complete-game shutout will be difficult, and even if Kershaw does it -- or, God forbid gives up a run -- I wonder if it will be enough to change the narrative. Earlier this season, Kershaw passed the 1,500-inning milestone in his career, becoming the 732nd pitcher to reach that mark. His 2.43 ERA is the lowest of any of them. But being one of the greatest pitchers of all-time comes with an undeniable cost. Because of his own brilliance, we hold Kershaw to a different standard. He knows that. He also knows he is going to need to make an October run like Madison Bumgarner did last season to erase any lingering doubt that he is the best pitcher on the planet.
I believe he is ready. Are we?
* * *
Molly Knight covered baseball for ESPN the Magazine for seven years and left to write a book on the Dodgers. That book, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The L.A. Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse, was published by Simon & Schuster on July 14. She lives in Los Angeles.