Column

Cardinals' winning rally escalates quickly and Clayton Kershaw can't stop it

The devastation began slowly, painfully, a nick here, a crack there, a bleeder, a blink, the quickening of a heartbeat.

Is this really happening? This is Clayton Kershaw. How could this be happening?

The devastation then finished quickly, suffocatingly, boom, pause, stunned silence, boom, lead lost, Cy crushed, season gasping.

Yes, this was really happening. Yes, in about 20 sweltering minutes early Friday evening, the two-time Cy Young Award winner blew a five-run lead, the richest payroll in baseball blew a seemingly certain win, and raucous Dodger Stadium flat melted.

"There are no words you can use right now," said a somber A.J. Ellis.

This was a speechless defeat indeed, a 10-9 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the opener of the National League division series that ranks as the worst Dodgers postseason loss since Tom Lasorda failed to walk Jack Clark in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 1985 National League Championship Series against the Cardinals.

"Maybe a little shocked," said Matt Kemp in an understatement as massive as the Cardinals' comeback.

This was even worse than Jimmy Rollins' two-run, walk-off double for the Philadelphia Phillies' in Game 4 of the 2009 National League Championship Series, because on the mound then was merely Jonathan Broxton, not the great Kershaw.

This was all about Kershaw. This was all about the Dodgers' best player and team leader having seemingly overcome last season's playoff debacle in St. Louis and set the tone for a Bulldog-type October. This is about how, instead, that nightmare reappeared, and now the Dodgers' season could be swallowed by it.

Teams that win the opener of the short division series have won those series 71% of the time. Teams that beat the game's best active pitcher to win that opener? The Cards will ride into Saturday's Game 2 on a roll that Zack Greinke must stop to save the season.

After Friday's loss, Ellis gave a quick clubhouse speech to remind his teammates that twice in September they lost a tough opener of a three-game series with the Giants and wound up winning the series. But no loss this season, or in many seasons, has been this tough.

"We have a great team, and if I don't get in the way, we have a pretty good chance to win that game," said Kershaw later, looking dazed, standing with his back to a concrete hallway wall, his wet hair hanging in his face. Was it from sweat or the shower?

With two out in the sixth inning, Kershaw was leading 6-1, had retired 16 consecutive batters, and the game truly seemed over.

"He was dominant, he was vintage Clayton, he was burying guys with the breaking ball," said Ellis.

Then suddenly vintage Clayton became vaporized Clayton, as he became buried under his fastball, the 92-degree temperatures, and Cardinals hitters who seemed to know exactly what pitch was coming, as if Kershaw was tipping his pitches while throwing from the stretch.

"It kind of all came crashing down," Kershaw said.

The fall began when he allowed a line drive over the right-field fence to Matt Carpenter in the sixth inning. Then when he took the mound in the seventh, the man who once pitched 41 consecutive scoreless innings this year gave up five singles to six batters. At that point Kershaw had thrown 99 pitches, and was clearly gassed, and out to the mound ran Manager Don Mattingly.

In most situations on most teams, Kershaw would have been replaced. But the Dodgers don't have the sort of trustworthy middle relievers who would justify removing their toughest competitor, a guy who has led the major leagues in earned-run average for four consecutive seasons for a reason. Did you really want to see weary J.P. Howell there instead of Kershaw? How about inconsistent Brian Wilson, did you want to see him?

Mattingly left Kershaw in the game, and it's hard to blame him. This was not about a manager's decision, but the makeup of a bullpen that has never lived up to its expensive expectations.

Said Mattingly: "It's really hard to take Clayton out."

Added Kemp: "That's our horse right there. You win with him, you lose with him."

Kershaw struck out Oscar Tavares on three pitches, but then, for a second consecutive October, he lost a monumental battle with Carpenter. In last season's NLCS, Carpenter beat him on 11 pitches. This time, he beat him on eight pitches, ripping a double off the right-center field wall to give the Cardinals a 7-6 lead.

Now it was time for that dreaded Dodgers middle relief, and rookie converted third baseman Pedro Baez promptly walked Randal Grichuk and allowed a three-run home run to Matt Holliday to give the Cardinals a 10-6 lead they never lost.

"It's a terrible feeling," said Kershaw, who claimed he wasn't fatigued. "As a starting pitcher, it's your game to lose, and I did that."

Before these playoffs began, because of the Dodgers bullpen inconsistencies, it was believed that Kershaw would have to have an Orel Hershiser-type October for the Dodgers to win a world championship. So far, that's not happening, not this postseason, and not in Kershaw's career.

In 1988, Hershiser gave up five earned runs in six games. On Friday, Kershaw allowed eight runs in 6 2/3 innings, and now has a 5.20 postseason ERA. Despite his wondrous regular seasons, his legacy will continue to hang in the crooked frame of some awful October moments.

Even for Cy Young, it's getting old.

Twitter: @billplaschke

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