The postseason career of Clayton Kershaw consists of peaks and valleys, an agonizing autumnal ritual. He can dominate and he can wilt — excellence in one game followed by vulnerability in the next. As the years pass, the heights feel less lofty, a mere respite before the inevitable tumble. The cycle repeated itself in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, as the Milwaukee Brewers hounded Kershaw in a 6-5 Dodgers defeat.
Kershaw was far from the only Dodger to disappoint Friday evening at Miller Park. But he represents the tip of the organizational spear. The Brewers broke him early and withstood a late flurry on the first night of the series.
"It was a tough one," Kershaw said. "Obviously, you don't want to get your team off to that start. But it happened."
It was the briefest start of Kershaw's career in the playoffs, a five-run, nine-out misery. Milwaukee proved to be a more formidable foe than the Atlanta Braves, whom Kershaw had blanked for eight innings in the NL Division Series. That outing marked the peak. Friday was the valley, as Kershaw crumbled beneath the weight of the Brewers bats and the defensive incompetence of his teammates.
Earlier in the summer, as Kershaw approached free agency and navigated around his diminishing velocity, he tinkered with his game. His resolve has not faded in this, his 10th season as a Dodger, but his fastball has. Milwaukee demonstrated the limits of his reinvention.
The outing was short, yet pocked with indignities. Kershaw permitted a home run to relief pitcher Brandon Woodruff. He howled in frustration as hits landed behind him and two passed balls got by Yasmani Grandal. The defense made four errors on the evening. Kershaw was forced to hand the baseball to manager Dave Roberts in the fourth inning, far sooner than either man desired.
"I just think it was poor execution," Roberts said. "I thought the stuff was good. But he made mistakes in the strike zone, and defensively, we didn't do him any favors."
The devastation was heightened as the game progressed. After Julio Urias yielded a solo homer in the seventh to give the Brewers a 6-1 lead, the Dodgers staged a furious late-game rally, plating three runs in the eighth and another in the ninth on a two-out triple from Chris Taylor. The game ended with Taylor at third base, when Justin Turner struck out against Brewers reliever Corey Knebel.
Manny Machado drove in three runs as the Dodgers forced Milwaukee to expend its elite relievers. Brewers manager Craig Counsell capitalized on inefficiencies in the Dodgers lineup by unleashing left-handed relief ace Josh Hader for three innings. Hader logged a career-high 46 pitches and is unlikely to pitch again until Game 3. Both Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress wobbled. The Dodgers lost the battle, but the series still might last seven games.
The Milwaukee bullpen presented a logistical nightmare for Roberts. The Brewers started left-handed pitcher Gio Gonzalez, but Roberts wondered how long the starter would last. Roberts knew he had to be careful when inserting pinch-hitters, because he did not want to shorten his bench for late-game scenarios when facing Milwaukee's bullpen trio of Hader, Jeffress and Knebel.
"It's going to be a tricky one," Roberts said before the game.
Kershaw was making the 21st start of his postseason career. His 20th had been a triumph. He was still stung by the team's decision to start him against Atlanta in Game 2, rather than Game 1, and he felt validation after bulldozing the Braves. He struck out only three in that game but missed enough barrels to roll through innings. The Brewers would not succumb to a similar fate.
Kershaw inherited a one-run lead in the second inning, after a solo homer by Machado. Roberts stressed the importance of an early advantage to disrupt the deployment of the Milwaukee bullpen. If the Dodgers were ahead, Roberts reasoned, Counsell might be inclined to save his best relievers for later in the series. Kershaw could not shepherd the plan to fruition.
When Kershaw came to the plate to start the third, a new Brewer was on the mound. Woodruff replaced Gonzalez in Counsell's first chess move of the evening. Woodruff pitched a clean inning. With the pitcher's spot due up in the bottom of the third, Counsell could have used a pinch-hitter. Woodruff stayed in the game instead.
Woodruff is a reliever by trade, but he stands 6'4" and weighs 215. He had homered once earlier this season. Kershaw picked up two strikes on Woodruff but could not induce a swing with a curveball. When Woodruff fouled off a 2-2 fastball, Kershaw doubled down. He threw the same pitch, at 92 mph, down the middle. The result was stunning.
"I knew he could swing the bat a little bit, for sure," Kershaw said. "I didn't know he could do that."
Upon impact, Kershaw whipped his head around to find the baseball. It was soaring over the wall in right-center field, an improbable solo shot. Woodruff pumped his fist, turned toward his dugout and hollered. Kershaw slumped his shoulders and circled the mound.
As Kershaw tussled with the top of Milwaukee's lineup, Grandal grappled with the more basic act of catching the baseball. After a single by Lorenzo Cain and a walk by Christian Yelich, Grandal lost his second passed ball of the evening. Moments later, he was tagged for a catcher's interference on Jesus Aguilar, who had been robbed of a hit by a diving catch by first baseman David Freese. Because of Grandal, the bases were loaded.
Kershaw was "out on the mound competing as much as he can," Grandal said. "And we pretty much just let him down."
Milwaukee pulled ahead on a sacrifice fly from second baseman Hernan Perez. Grandal muffed the reception of the throw from the outfield, giving him a triple crown for the inning: a passed ball, catcher's interference and an error. Kershaw ended the rally by striking out third baseman Mike Moustakas, but the inning lasted 29 pitches.
The Brewers dogged Kershaw again in the fourth. He issued a seven-pitch walk to catcher Manny Piña. He gave up a single to shortstop Orlando Arcia on an 89-mph slider. Taylor compounded the dilemma by bobbling Arcia's hit, an error that let both runners skate into scoring position. "We didn't play clean when [Kershaw] was in the game," Roberts said.
With Kershaw teetering, Ryan Madson warmed up in the bullpen. The leash on Kershaw was long enough for one more batter, in the form of pinch-hitter Domingo Santana. Kershaw pumped a 91-mph fastball that cut the plate in half. Santana slashed it to left for a two-run single.
Roberts intervened moments later, but Madson did not strand the runner. Santana swiped second base on a play that was overturned by a replay challenge. Former MVP Ryan Braun rolled a single into right field. The throw from Matt Kemp did not have enough steam to cut down Santana.
It was the fifth run charged to Kershaw. Only four were earned. But all five counted.
"Our team played great," Kershaw said. "Myself, I've got to do a better job of keeping the score close for our guys to have a chance at the end."