Past midnight on Tuesday, as the party after the Dodgers’ sweep of Arizona in the National League division series wound down, Clayton Kershaw beamed in the center of the visitors clubhouse at Phoenix’s Chase Field.
His daughter danced behind him while Kendrick Lamar preached the virtues of humility through throbbing speakers. The dream of two more Champagne celebrations felt close enough to touch.
“This was a lot of fun,” Kershaw said. “The next one, I’ve never done it before. I bet it’s going to be bigger. And then the next one — I might not sleep for 10 days after that.”
The prospect of the World Series has tantalized Kershaw for five years. His team has fallen short every time. In order to snap a 28-season championship drought, the Dodgers may ask less of Kershaw than ever before. That may not be a choice. It may be a necessity.
For Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Saturday at Dodger Stadium, Kershaw will take the baseball after seven days off. The previous four years, the team used Kershaw on short rest in the first round of the playoffs. Never before have the Dodgers traveled this deep into October with Kershaw this fresh.
Yet, as manager Dave Roberts prepares for the coming series, the lesson from Kershaw’s Game 1 of the NLDS start against Arizona could prove instructive.
Kershaw permitted a pair of home runs in the seventh inning, the continuation of a trend. The perception of Kershaw as a postseason pushover — a narrative Kershaw has been unable to shake despite half a dozen excellent October starts — revolves around the seventh. In playoff games he’s started, his earned-run average in that inning is 25.50.
This year could be different, if Roberts chooses to manage Kershaw the way he manages his other starting pitchers.
“No one wants it more than he does, and no one is going to compete more,” Roberts said. “But I think to have the guys in the ‘pen, who I feel very confident in going to, lends itself to not pushing him.”
Kershaw struck out seven batters in the first six innings of Game 1 against Arizona. Roberts sent him back out for the seventh. After a line-out, Kershaw surrendered solo home runs to Ketel Marte, a shortstop with eight career homers, and Jeff Mathis, a light-hitting catcher who has hit 13 homers since 2013. During the regular season, Kershaw gave up a career-high number of homers. He yielded four more in Game 1.
A day later, a few hours before Game 2, Roberts slid onto a dugout bench and explained his decision not to replace Kershaw earlier. Kershaw had only thrown 92 pitches and Roberts had budgeted 110. The Dodgers led by five runs. There were few signs of distress.
“There’s nothing in me that says Clayton has to be pushed, and he has to be in there when and if the game goes the other way,” Roberts said. “I really don’t feel that way. That’s a credit to the guys in the ‘pen. I think the score dictated it, a little bit.”
In October, urgency trumps orthodox. A manager must be ruthless rather than sentimental. Roberts displayed those qualities in the next two games. He pulled Rich Hill after four innings in Game 2. In the Game 3 clincher, Roberts trusted his bullpen, and his eyes, when Yu Darvish’s command faded.
In the fifth, Darvish left a few sliders up in the strike zone, including one that was hit for a home run. Roberts let Darvish hit in the top of the sixth, even with a runner at third base, willing to let his pitcher extend into the next inning. But when Darvish drilled pinch hitter Christian Walker in the helmet to start the bottom of the inning, Roberts removed him from the game and entrusted the rest of the night to the relievers. Darvish did not object.
“We didn’t want to give them any chances,” Darvish said. “If I was the manager, I’d do the same thing.”
Can Roberts apply the same philosophy to Kershaw?
“Clayton is special,” Roberts said. “But I think it is my responsibility to look at all the angles and make a decision about how far to push him.”
The autopsies of Kershaw’s seventh-inning playoff performances are grisly. In Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS, he blew a four-run lead as the St. Louis Cardinals scored eight runs. Three days later, he hung a curveball to St. Louis first baseman Matt Adams and surrendered a three-run homer as the Dodgers were eliminated. A year later, Pedro Baez coughed up a two-run single to New York Mets captain David Wright in Game 1 of the NLDS — both runs were charged to Kershaw, who had walked the bases loaded.
Last year, in his first October managing the Dodgers, Roberts witnessed a similar cataclysm. The team asked Kershaw to pitch on short rest in Game 4 of the first round against Washington. Despite lingering concern about his back, Kershaw sailed into the seventh with a three-run lead. Then shortstop Danny Espinosa led off with a single and outfielder Trea Turner produced an infield hit. Roberts let Kershaw face slugger Bryce Harper, who passed on a pair of borderline, two-strike pitches for a walk.
The bases were loaded. The relievers turned the lead to ash. Baez hit a batter with the only pitch he threw. Luis Avilan served up a game-tying single. In the dugout, Kershaw looked stricken. The Dodgers recovered to win the game, but the meltdown stung.
The weight of this history meshes with the acknowledgment of Kershaw’s slight regression in 2017. There were the homers. There was another back injury, this one a muscle strain that cost him five weeks. For the first season since 2009, Kershaw did not record a shutout.
Kershaw was also less imposing later in games. He allowed opposing hitters to post a .707 on-base plus slugging percentage when facing them a third time — a respectable mark that is well above his career average of .601.
Yet Kershaw still led the National League with 18 wins, a 2.31 ERA and a 6.73-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His talent is immense. His will is unquestioned. Roberts must analyze those factors against the evidence from Kershaw’s past.
“I don’t like to take history or individual history into account too much, because I think the recency of that particular game should hold value,” Roberts said. “But history, sometimes, is predictive. So you have to weigh everything.”