Clayton Kershaw slowly backpedaled as the baseball soared to left field, panic briefly consuming him. He hunched over slightly as the ball off Nick Hundley’s bat continued toward the wall with help from strong gusts. It was threatening to land in the seats and turn Kershaw’s shaky outing against the San Francisco Giants into an untimely disaster in the fifth inning Saturday.
But the ball died, like so many do, at the AT&T Park warning track. Joc Pederson settled there to catch it for the third out. Kershaw wiped the sweat off from under his cap on his walk off the field. He talked into his glove as he descended into the visitors’ dugout during the Dodgers’ 10-6 win. The left-hander didn’t emerge again as his teammates finished off clinching a playoff berth for the sixth straight season. His day, his regular season, and possibly his Dodgers career were over.
Afterward, the 30-year-old Kershaw maintained he hasn’t thought about what lies beyond this season during his team’s alcohol-infused, but subdued, celebration. There’s been too much at stake lately, he reasoned, to decide whether he will opt out of his contract with two years remaining on it.
“I think I have a good chance to get another start here soon,” Kershaw said, “so that’s really all I can think about now.”
“It might’ve crossed my mind once, but I eliminated that thought quickly,” Roberts said. “We’ll see what happens.”
If Saturday was Kershaw’s final outing with Los Angeles, it was otherwise forgettable. The left-hander gave up five runs and eight hits and compiled four strikeouts across five innings, leaving him with a 2.73 ERA in 26 starts. It was the first time Kershaw surrendered more than four runs in fewer than six innings since May 10, 2015. It doubled as the worst start of the future Hall of Famer’s career against his team’s chief nemesis.
“He just wasn’t as sharp,” Roberts said. “I just didn’t think that he had the command across the board. They were seeing him well. They were taking some good swings. And even for a guy like Clayton, with his pitch mix, you still got to have command and I don’t think he had the command today.”
And yet Kershaw, who entered sporting a 1.30 career ERA in 22 appearances at AT&T Park, left with the score even, which was good enough for the Dodgers given their situation. There was plenty of time to feast on the Giants’ bullpen after knocking around right-hander Dereck Rodriguez. And they gorged, starting in the eighth inning, when Manny Machado’s triple delivered the go-ahead run.
The Dodgers handed Kershaw a two-run cushion after two innings on home runs by Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig. The cushion was squandered by the end of the third. Gorkys Hernandez supplied the first blow in the second inning. Kershaw fell behind 3-0 before battling back to run the count full. But Hernandez smacked a 92-mph fastball through the left side for an RBI single.
In the third inning, Abiatal Avelino delivered a pinch-hit single and scored from first base on Hunter Pence’s double into the left field corner on what would’ve been a close play at the plate had catcher Yasmani Grandal not dropped the ball before applying a tag. Joe Panik then lined a first-pitch fastball to left field to score Pence and move the Giants in front.
The Dodgers responded with a three-run fifth inning, an outburst capped by Kershaw’s soft two-run single to right field against left-hander Ty Blach. He’ll finish the season with seven RBIs and a .239 batting average.
For Kershaw to pitch again this season, the Dodgers must advance to the National League Division Series; Kershaw likely would start Game 1 against the Atlanta Braves on Thursday. For that to happen, they need to either claim the NL West title or win the NL wild-card game Tuesday. Saturday was a step in that direction. Kershaw wasn’t nearly his best, but he was good enough. Now, he must wait.
“Five straight division titles, making the playoffs this year, made the playoffs my first two years, that’s like eight out of 11 or something, something ridiculous,” Kershaw said. “That’s not lost on me. I understand how incredible that is. It’s just a testament to this organization. And I’m thankful. I’m thankful I got to be here. I’m thankful I got to grow up here.”