The only good news for the Dodgers last night was that they wouldn’t have to worry about losing their third straight World Series in their own ballpark. Because they wouldn’t be playing in the World Series: in a stunning upset, the Washington Nationals won their first-ever postseason series as not-the-Montreal-Expos, advancing to the NLCS thanks to a Dodger blown save and an extra-innings grand slam by a former Dodger.
Manager Dave Roberts has made some very questionable decisions in postseasons past (Game 4 of last year’s World Series comes to mind), but none so confusing as sticking with postseason ne’er-do-well Clayton Kershaw as a reliever in the 8th inning. Kershaw relieved fellow starter, wunderkind Walker Buehler, in the 7th, and got the third out. But it was surprising to see him back out for the 8th. And that surprise quickly morphed into horror, when he allowed back-to-back home runs to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. It only took him three pitches to blow the save, the game, and the Dodgers’ hopes of moving on. Now, over his postseason career, Kershaw has given up ten home runs in elimination games, the most in history; no other pitcher has ever allowed more than Tim Wakefield’s five.
Since David Price exorcised his own October demons last fall, Clayton Kershaw now seems the sole heir to the saddest throne in baseball, that of the postseason choker. At this point in his career, the issue is far from an anomaly. A bad start or two, call it an unfortunate coincidence, a formidable opponent, plain bad luck. But this was his ninth postseason. He’s pitched in over thirty games in eight division series, six championship series, and two World Series. Over 158.1 career postseason innings, he’s allowed 24 home runs. Legendary Yankees closer Mariano Rivera pitched in sixteen postseasons; over 141.0 innings, he only allowed two home runs ever.
Of course, comparing the regular season to the postseason is like comparing an apple and an elephant. One is a marathon, the other, the most intense of sprints. Postseason opponents are the best of the best, and the pressure is at its highest every game. Kershaw’s track record suggests that maybe he’s simply not cut out for it. It seems he’s destined to be the Moses of baseball: the one to lead the Dodgers through the desert for years, but not into the Promised Land.
At 31 years old, there are only so many postseasons left in Kershaw’s future. For just the second time in his career and the first time since 2009, he was not the Dodgers’ Game 1 starter. His age shows in the lower velocity of his pitches. He’s been beset by injuries, and a stubbornness to deviate from the rigidity of his routines.
Sometimes, a problem doesn’t have a solution. The Dodgers have some of the best coaching and technology money can buy, the assumption being that if there was a solution, they would have found it by now. Certainly, the Dodgers can’t enjoy winning seven straight division titles but never the whole shebang. Therefore, the only viable solution, which isn’t really all that viable, is to not use him in high-leverage situations, of which there are many in October. At least not in the 8th inning when you have actual relievers ready to go. In that sense, the blame should not be on Clayton Kershaw at all; he should never have been pitching in the first place.
So maybe it’s time baseball lovers reach the stage in the grieving process at which we accept that Clayton Kershaw is one of, if not the greatest starting pitcher of his generation, but just not a very good postseason pitcher. That if the Dodgers want to finally win it all in the future, it will have to be despite, not because of him. That forcing this year after year will not bring about a different result, only more heartbreak. That the map to October has a fork in the road at which they deviate from Clayton Kershaw somehow.
Or maybe he, like David Price, will someday, somehow overcome his postseason problems. After all, this is baseball. Miracles happen every day.
Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports
Stats: Baseball-References, NBC Sports