Clayton Kershaw entered the interview room at Dodger Stadium on Thursday afternoon in a T-shirt with the collar cut into a v-neck. Sweat stains coated his cap. He had completed a workout in left field minutes earlier, hours before the Dodgers commenced their sixth straight trip to the postseason. It would be the only time Kershaw was on the field Thursday.
Hyun-Jin Ryu, not Kershaw, started Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. Kershaw was assigned Game 2 on Friday. It was the first time since 2009 Kershaw did not start the first game of the postseason for the Dodgers. The decision, announced late Tuesday, unleashed shock waves. It snatched attention. And it surprised Kershaw.
“It wasn’t really an agree or disagree type thing, I guess,” Kershaw said. “They had their reasons, and I accepted them.”
Kershaw learned he wasn’t starting Game 1 on a conference call with manager Dave Roberts and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt on Tuesday. Ryu later saw Kershaw and asked him if he was starting Game 1.
“I said, ‘No, you are,’” Kershaw said. “And we walked off.”
Kershaw laughed after recalling the interaction. He was genial during the five-minute session with reporters, standard procedure for the next game’s starter during the postseason. But his opinion on the matter was palpable.
He declined to label the decision “a gut punch,” but he admitted asking Roberts and Honeycutt why he wasn’t chosen for Game 1. Kershaw did not divulge the rationale Roberts and Honeycutt communicated with him, but Roberts later offered an explanation. The thought, Roberts said, was that having both Ryu and Kershaw pitch on an extra day of rest instead of Kershaw on regular rest and Ryu on two extra days’ rest would give the Dodgers a better chance to win both games.
Kershaw posted a 2.56 ERA in 12 starts on an extra day of rest this season and a 3.21 ERA in nine starts on regular rest. Opponents, however, compiled a higher on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.650 to .604) and home runs (nine to four) when Kershaw was on regular rest. Ryu, meanwhile, has been better on six days’ rest this season and over his entire major league career.
“I don’t know,” Kershaw said when asked if he believed the extra rest would benefit him. “I’ll let you know tomorrow. … I think this year I’ve pitched with an extra day a lot more than in years’ past. I mean, not necessarily by choice, not that I wanted to do it. But it’s kind of the way it was designed. We have more off days now during the season so it kind of worked out that way. But I think I probably would have been fine either way.”
The differences during the regular season are insignificant given the small sample sizes. Evaluating the choice requires a more macro lens. The 30-year-old Kershaw has not been the Kershaw from the previous decade this season. His velocity has tapered. His famed curveball isn’t fooling as many hitters. He pitched to a 2.73 ERA in 26 starts, his highest mark since 2010. His final regular-season start provided more evidence: He gave up five runs in five innings against an anemic San Francisco Giants club that had scored five runs in a game three times in September.
“Clayton is this generation’s best pitcher,” Roberts said. “And so it is a sacrifice. Obviously, it’s a huge sacrifice for him. But to not let it influence his mind or psyche, that doesn’t surprise me because he doesn’t have to look too far at other guys that have sort of done the same thing on a different level.”
Sacrifice has been a theme for the 2018 Dodgers, especially over the previous month. Position players accustomed to everyday roles were relegated to platoons. Their playing time depended on the opposing starting pitcher’s handedness. The strategy maximized the offense’s production during their playoff push. But none of those players carry Kershaw’s track record. He has been the face of the Dodgers for a decade. He is a future Hall of Famer. And on Friday he will pitch Game 2.
“I don’t really need to prove myself to anybody,” Kershaw said. “I think I just want my teammates to want me out there. I think that’s the biggest thing.”