LOS ANGELES — It’s simple now: The Los Angeles Dodgers need a win to stay alive, and Clayton Kershaw needs to deliver it. But there’s so much more to it than that.
It’s Kershaw, with the ability to soon opt out of his contract, starting at Dodger Stadium for the last time this season and potentially the last time in his career. And then there’s that whole thing about legacy, a convoluted topic when the subject is, indeed, Kershaw himself.
Kershaw, perhaps the greatest pitcher of his era, has been an overall disappointment in the postseason. That isn’t a faulty narrative; it’s reality. The three-time Cy Young Award winner and seven-time All-Star owns a 2.39 ERA in 2,096 ⅓ career innings during the regular season, but a 4.28 ERA in 145 innings during the postseason.
That is a significant sample size for October — almost an entire season’s worth — and also a big jump in ERA. How big? Well, among those who have compiled at least 2,000 regular-season innings and 50 postseason innings, Kershaw owns the second-largest ERA increase in history from the regular season to the postseason, trailing only former Boston Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (4.41 ERA in the regular season, 6.75 ERA in the postseason).
The Dodgers’ bullpen-fueled 9-6 loss to the Red Sox in Game 4 of the World Series on Saturday night put them a 3-1 deficit, and teams with a 3-1 deficit in this stage have gone on to win only 13 percent of the time. But that makes this a great opportunity for Kershaw, because there’s no better way to flip a narrative than to accomplish the improbable.
Delivering in Game 5, then perhaps helping out in Games 6 or 7 from Fenway Park, and playing a major role in this franchise’s first title in 30 years, might silence the thought of Kershaw not coming through in the postseason. It might change his legacy forever.
“I don’t really care about legacy,” Kershaw said. “I don’t really care what people think of me or perceive of me. Game 5 is a very important game to win the World Series, and I’m looking forward to pitching that game and hopefully putting us in a great spot going back to Boston. And that’s really all I care about. All that other stuff — people are going to have their opinions, you know, and that’s fine. I’m not here to change them. I’m here to pitch. And all that other stuff will take care of itself.”
There have been nights when Kershaw has pitched well in the postseason, but there have been nearly as many nights when he hasn’t. And that is perhaps what is most fascinating about all this.
Kershaw’s eight postseason starts of six-plus innings with one run or fewer are tied with Jon Lester for the most since 2013. But his eight postseason starts yielding five or more runs are the most all time. Among his 23 starts, 11 finished with a game score above 55 and 12 finished with a game score below 55.
The volatility has usually been encapsulated within each playoff series, several of which include equal parts Good Kershaw and Bad Kershaw. That means Kershaw’s shaky performance in Game 1 of the World Series — five runs, 12 outs and very little slider command in a loss from Fenway Park — might be an encouraging sign for what lies ahead.
Before we find out, here’s a look through some of the highs and lows of prior series where he made more than one start.
Good: 2018 NLCS Game 5. Kershaw’s trusty old friend — that filthy, 12-to-6 curveball — returned on this afternoon. With the series tied 2-2, Kershaw relied heavily on his breaking ball to pitch seven innings of one-run ball against the Milwaukee Brewers, allowing only five baserunners while striking out nine batters. It propelled the Dodgers to clinch a second consecutive pennant in Game 7, where Kershaw swiftly recorded the final three outs.
Bad: 2018 NLCS Game 1. Here’s all you need to know about this one: Kershaw allowed a home run to an opposing relief pitcher. A left-handed-hitting relief pitcher. His name was Brandon Woodruff, but the details don’t matter all that much. Kershaw ultimately gave up six hits and two walks. He was charged with five runs (four earned), and he recorded only nine outs.
Good: 2017 World Series Game 1. The Dodgers seemed well on their way to their first championship since 1988 when Kershaw dominated the Houston Astros from Dodger Stadium to begin the Fall Classic, recording 11 strikeouts, issuing zero walks and allowing only a solo home run in seven innings on a 103-degree night. Kershaw threw in the mid-90s, with late-breaking sliders and filthy curveballs. In retrospect, was this the final start of Peak Kershaw?
Bad: 2017 World Series Game 5. If there’s an outing that haunts Kershaw’s dreams, it’s this one. This is The One That Got Away. The Dodgers had a chance to win a key swing game, and Kershaw was given plenty of chances. He had a 4-0 lead when he took the mound in the bottom of the fourth, then allowed four runs. He had a 7-4 lead when he took the mound in the bottom of the fifth, then paved the way for three more to score. The Dodgers lost in 10 innings. As you probably know, they also lost the series.
Good: 2016 NLCS Game 2. Trailing 1-0 in the series to a dangerous Chicago Cubs team, Kershaw braved a hostile Wrigley Field crowd and delivered seven scoreless innings to outduel Kyle Hendricks, baseball’s ERA leader that season, in what became a 1-0 victory. He allowed only three baserunners on this night. Most impressive: It came in an October of heavy lifting, giving him 19 ⅓ innings over a stretch of 10 days.
Bad: 2016 NLCS Game 6. Perhaps that workload caught up to him. The Cubs smelled an opportunity to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1945 and steamrolled past Kershaw when the series returned to Chicago, scoring two runs in the first two innings and five runs through the first five. Kershaw even tried out a sidearm delivery in this start, and Anthony Rizzo hammered the offering for a home run.
Good: 2015 NLDS Game 4. Kershaw forced a winner-take-all Game 5 — an eventual Dodgers loss, but hey, that was no longer his problem — with seven innings of one-run ball against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Kershaw gave up three hits, issued one walk and struck out eight batters on 94 pitches. The most encouraging part: He needed only eight pitches to get through the seventh inning, the frame that had so often doomed him in this stage.
Bad: 2015 NLDS Game 1. So, about that seventh inning … Kershaw couldn’t escape it in this one. He began it with his Dodgers trailing by only a run, then walked three batters to load the bases with two outs — the first time in a stretch of 95 starts that Kershaw had issued three walks in the same inning — and was pulled with 113 pitches. Pedro Baez then gave up a two-out single to David Wright. The Dodgers, as you might have guessed, eventually lost.
Good: 2013 NLCS Game 2. The Dodgers lost this game, but it had a whole lot more to do with Michael Wacha’s dominance than Kershaw’s struggles. The only run Kershaw allowed came in the fifth, when David Freese hit a leadoff double, took third on a passed ball and scored on a sacrifice fly. Kershaw gave up just two hits and that unearned run in six innings. But the St. Louis Cardinals won 1-0.
Bad: 2013 NLCS Game 6. If you’re looking for the genesis of the “Clayton Kershaw is not a big-game pitcher” narrative, you might be able to find it here, with Kershaw once again facing Wacha and his Dodgers now facing elimination. He allowed four runs in the third, put the first three batters on in the fifth and promptly exited. His next postseason start — Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS — also came against the Cardinals, and Kershaw was charged with eight runs in 6 ⅔ innings.
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