If the game had taken place on a greater stage, if Clayton Kershaw wasn’t made the focal point of the Dodgers’ latest setback by virtue of his higher profile, Yasmani Grandal could have earned a permanent place in the franchise’s mythology Friday night.
Grandal was that shaky.
He was Yu Darvish behind a catcher’s mask. He was Jonathan Broxton with a chest protector. He was Tom Niedenfuer in shin guards.
If Kershaw had chances to escape a nightmarish third inning in the 6-5 defeat to the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, Grandal made them vanish with a series of incredible blunders behind home plate.
He allowed a passed ball, his second of the game. He was called for catcher’s interference. And he was charged with an error when he dropped a throw from center fielder Cody Bellinger.
It was as if his glove was lathered in grease.
None of the mistakes directly resulted in a run. Combined, however, they might have. And in a game that was ultimately decided by a run, that’s what could have separated the Dodgers from a victory. They are now down in the National League Championship Series, one game to zero.
To his credit, Grandal didn’t make any excuses for his performance.
“I think it was a matter of minimizing damage and we weren’t able to do that,” Grandal said. “Obviously, I was a part of it, so I take that upon myself.”
The entire episode was a reminder that no amount of hard work or desire can guarantee results. Opportunities to pursue greatness are nothing more than opportunities. These journeys are as likely to end in humiliation as they are in glory.
Like any other athlete, Grandal presumably knew the risk he was undertaking when he looked to rebuild himself after a disappointing end to last season. At this time a year ago, Grandal was spending most of his time on the bench, relegated to a reserve role as Austin Barnes replaced him as the team’s primary catcher.
What Grandal wanted was a chance to play in the postseason. And he earned it by reestablishing himself as the best offensive catcher in the game, hitting 24 home runs and driving in 68 runs. Barnes never threatened him.
Grandal batted .077 in the four games of an NLDS against the Atlanta Braves but had an important solo home run in a 3-0 victory in Game 2. He was 1 for 4 on Friday.
As much as Grandal contributed offensively this year, his defense remained a subject of debate. While the front office continued to cherish his ability to frame pitches — basically, to turn borderline balls into strikes — his nine passed balls were second most in the National League.
The old problem re-emerged in the first inning. Lorenzo Cain led off the game with a single to center field, after which Kershaw uncorked a pitch in the dirt to Christian Yelich. The baseball dribbled between Grandal’s bent legs, allowing Cain to reach second base. The inning became particularly stressful, as Kershaw had to record all three outs with a man in scoring position.
The Dodgers claimed the first lead of the game in the second inning on a solo home run by Manny Machado.
The Brewers reversed the deficit in the third inning, when Kershaw and Grandal unraveled. The inning started with a home run by relief pitcher Brandon Woodruff that leveled the score, 1-1.
The shocking blast was followed by a single by Cain and a walk by Yelich. With one out, Kershaw delivered a pitch to Jesus Aguilar that squirted by Grandal, advancing Cain to third base and Yelich to second.
“It’s a byproduct of being flat-footed,” Grandal said. “At times, I don’t feel it, but I think I get on my heels. Set-up wise, I was on my heels. Never really got to my toes. In this game, that’s huge because it allows you to move. If you can’t move, you can’t do anything.”
Aguilar’s at-bat appeared to end with a lineout to a diving David Freese at first base, but plate umpire Scott Barry signaled for catcher’s interference. Aguilar’s bat nicked Grandal’s outstretched glove before making contact with the baseball.
“I didn’t feel it,” Grandal said.
The bases were now loaded.
Cain scored on a sacrifice fly to center field to move the Brewers in front, 2-1. Bellinger should have thrown to third base on the play but instead threw home. And Grandal should have caught the baseball, but didn’t. So Yelich scampered to third base and Aguilar ran to second. Kershaw avoided complete disaster by striking out Mike Moustakas.
With a passed ball, catcher’s interference and error trifecta, Grandal played what was arguably the worst defensive inning in Dodgers history since Willie Davis made three errors in the fifth inning in Game 2 of the 1966 World Series.
Grandal said he felt guilty for failing Kershaw. The Dodgers defense was a problem again in the fourth inning, when an error by left fielder Chris Taylor contributed to a three-run inning for the Brewers that opened their lead to 5-1.
“Obviously, he’s out on the mound competing as much as he possibly can and we pretty much just let him down,” Grandal said. “I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Grandal made it a point to correct his errors. He watched video of himself after the third inning and recognized the mistakes that resulted in the passed balls.
He asked video coordinator John Pratt about the catcher’s interference call and later told Barry that he made a right call.
“There are going to be days that happens,” Grandal said. “I’m just glad I was able to fix it right away. It’s nothing where you would need to go out and block 1,000 times, especially at this point in the season. Looking forward to tomorrow and we’ll take it from there.”