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ARLINGTON, Texas – These playoff demons follow Clayton Kershaw everywhere, from his baseball home of Dodger Stadium, to a stolen-sign ambush in Houston and finally, Thursday night, to the doorstep of his hometown, where the scenery changed but the narrative did not.
It is Kershaw, and it is October, and so in the sixth inning of Game 4, National League Championship Series, 1-1 tie, a bouncing ball that dribbled off Ronald Acuna Jr.’s bat at 75 mph tucked neatly into a space between the mound and second base. And a Freddie Freeman grounder found its way down the first-base line for extra bases.
And a manager – once, it was Don Mattingly, now, it’s Dave Roberts – sees the buzzards circling and a fresh bullpen beckoning and the most dangerous bat in this series coming up and decides, no, Kersh is my guy, and this is how we will go down.
And down they went, yet again.
The Dodgers are not yet dead, but they can see the first tee from here after a virtual must-win Game 4 collapsed under the weight of six sixth-inning runs, just three charged to Kershaw but all the weight bearing on him anyway. The final score was 10-2, Braves, and now Atlanta is one win from the World Series.
The Dodgers must win three consecutive games to reach their third World Series in four years. If they don’t, there will be multiple culprits but just one enduring image.
Oh, it changes a bit. Sometimes the camera captures Kershaw with his head in his hands, or staring at the ground, or leaned back on a dugout bench, a vacant expression on his face.
Thursday night began with Kershaw, pitching in front of considerable family and friends from nearby Highland Park, bidding to move into fifth place all-time in postseason wins, alongside Roger Clemens, a statistic that may surprise those who assume the worst about his playoff performance.
Yes, Kershaw has pitched poorly, but he’s also spun some gems and above all, has merely pitched a lot in the playoffs: 28 starts, 177 ⅓ innings, 194 strikeouts, an entire season of do-or-die pitches under his belt.
It’s a long enough track record to think he’d be impervious to October randomness, but it always seems to find him.
In Game 4, all the usual factors were in play: Kershaw a tick less dominant than his regular season self, a questionable managerial move, a bullpen that rarely does him postseason favors.
The fork in the road arrived in the fateful sixth, when Acuna’s scratch hit and Freeman’s go-ahead double would have caused almost any manager to lift almost any pitcher. The Braves’ offense is only outdone by the Dodgers in almost every key metric. Kershaw, whose fastball tops out at 90 mph these days, was facing the top of the order for the third time.
In 2020, that’s a veritable five-alarm fire.
For Roberts, it was time to steer into a blind spot.
“I’m not going to take Kersh out after a weak ground ball and another weak ground ball from Freeman,” Roberts said.
“I felt really good about Kershaw at that point in time.”
As the sixth inning began Thursday, nobody warmed in the Dodgers bullpen, beyond Brusdar Graterol loosening a bit. It would make sense that Kershaw would face the lefty Freeman, but with Ozuna having smoked a hard ground ball – turned for a double play – and a 422-foot home run off Kershaw, perhaps some relief was in order.
Ozuna certainly believed he’d be facing Graterol, particularly after Freeman’s double.
“I realized, oh no, they might not let him face me,” says Ozuna. “I told Freddie, let’s do it, because I might be facing Graterol. (Roberts) gave me the opportunity to face him again, and I got him.”
Indeed he did, smacking a flat slider 109 mph for an RBI double. A one-run lead was now 3-1 and Kershaw was done.
Graterol and Victor Gonzalez would combine to give up four more hits, burying the Dodgers in a 7-1 hole.
If this means the end for the Dodgers, it’s only slightly less of a gut punch than their Game 5 Division Series elimination a year ago. With his trust in closer Kenley Jansen waning, Roberts tabbed Kershaw in relief to record the final out in the seventh inning against the Washington Nationals. Kershaw obliged, retiring Adam Eaton to preserve a two-run lead.
That should have been enough. But to the surprise of many, Roberts extended the rare relief appearance another inning. And then it was bang-bang: Home run Anthony Rendon, home run Juan Soto, goodbye lead, hello winter, cue sad Kershaw photo.
This NLCS autopsy would reveal plenty of culprits for a Dodger elimination, notably an inconsistent offense and a bullpen that suddenly features few, if any, reliable parts. And Kershaw’s 2020 playoff line – a 2-1 record, a 3.32 ERA, 23 strikeouts to two walks – belies how things fell apart Thursday.
One image may endure, though, fair or not.
“He came out, and five innings, one run, he gave us a chance to win the baseball game,” says Roberts when given the chance to tamp down the public perception of his lefty. “That narrative couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Indeed, it’s more complex than the drive-by fan would care to admit. It also never seems to go away.