Clayton Kershaw’s first pitch was a fastball, and Trea Turner smacked the cover off it.
It was that quick. It was that ominous. The demons didn’t wait.
The ball skittered inside third base and down the left-field line, and Turner soon was standing on second while the breathless attention of Dodger Stadium was focused on the pitching mound.
Was this really happening again?
It was. It did. The greatest Dodgers regular-season pitcher drove into another October ditch Friday, and his teammates once again were unable to dig him out.
Kershaw allowed three runs to the Washington Nationals in the first two innings and while he settled down, the game never did. The Dodgers couldn’t figure out Stephen Strasburg. The Dodgers bullpen struggled just enough. The night ended with the bases loaded and Corey Seager striking out flailing on a spinning slider from Daniel Hudson. That will be the lasting memory of the Dodgers’ 4-2 loss in a series-evening Game 2 of the National League Division Series.
But make no mistake, it started with Kershaw. Once again, on the biggest stage, he came up short. While the rocking Dodger Stadium ended the night in a giant sigh, much earlier it contained boos, and those boos were directed at you-know-who.
In the box score, Kershaw finished with a decent line. This wasn’t Kershaw in St. Louis, or Houston or Boston. In six innings he allowed three runs on six hits with four strikeouts and one walk.
It won’t look bad in print, but for some agonizing moments, it looked awful on the field. In the end, it looked bad on the scoreboard. Once again, it looked like the Dodgers’ longtime ace did not give his team enough of a chance to win in a postseason game that required it.
The future Hall of Famer now has a 4.33 postseason ERA, compared to a 2.44 regular-season ERA. For a pitcher of his experience, it is a disparity unmatched in baseball history.
One of the greatest pitchers ever now has a 9-11 postseason record, compared to a 169-74 regular-season record. For a guy who will one day command a Dodger Stadium statue, the disparity rings cold.
That the troubles started in the first inning should have been no surprise for more than one reason. Kershaw has a 5.78 ERA in 28 first innings this year, including allowing 10 homers in 28 starts.
This Kershaw allowed one run in the first, and it could have been much worse. The Nationals loaded the bases on that leadoff double by Turner, a walk to Anthony Rendon and a pitch that hit Juan Soto in the upper arm. Howie Kendrick, the Game 1 goat, followed with an RBI single to left.
Then Kershaw was fortunate when Ryan Zimmerman swung at his first pitch and fouled out, and Kurt Suzuki stranded the bases loaded with a strikeout.
“I was able to get out that first inning with limited damage, so that inning could have gotten bigger obviously; I’m thankful to get out of that with one,” Kershaw said. “That’s not what killed us. The second inning tonight was not good.”
Ah yes, the second inning. Kershaw found trouble again immediately by hitting Victor Robles in the lower leg, and do you know how rare it is for Kershaw to hit two batters in a game? Talk about postseason voodoo. He had hit only two batters all season, and had hit two batters in a game three times in his 12-year career.
“I don’t know why, it just happened,” Kershaw said.
After Strasburg bunted Robles to second, Adam Eaton and Rendon followed with consecutive shots into left field, a single and a double, to account for two runs. That Eaton’s hit came with two strikes and two out epitomized Kershaw’s night, if not his entire postseason career.
“That was the decision of the game, really,” Kershaw said. “You get two strikes and two outs on the hitter, they shouldn’t score any runs at that point, and they score two more after that, and that was the difference in the game.”
Kershaw settled down such that he allowed only two hits in the final four innings. But by the time he left, the Nationals were seen on the national television broadcast apparently telling each other that Kershaw was tipping his pitches. That claim has been made before by teams who have hit him hard in the postseason.
“I’m not sure; I’ll check it out,” Kershaw said.
Dave Roberts, the Dodgers manager always looking on the bright side, was appreciative that Kershaw hung in there after his early struggles.
“I think Clayton to save our ‘pen ... for him to give us six innings, was big,” Roberts said.
But Strasburg was bigger, allowing just one run on three hits in six innings and continuing his postseason mastery. Strasburg has a 0.64 ERA in five postseason appearances with 38 strikeouts and four walks in 28 innings.
Kershaw has never quite been that pitcher for the Dodgers, despite annual hopes that it will change. Even though he finished the year with a 3.03 ERA, the highest of any season in which he made at least 22 starts, he had won his last three playoff openers. And even though he allowed a career-high 28 homers this year, there was hope that he would apply an early dagger as he did in last season’s division series, when he allowed the Atlanta Braves just two hits in eight innings in one of his best postseason starts.
Alas, for Dodgers fans, it was not to be, and only reminded them of the previous time he was on the mound in a postseason game. It was last October, when he allowed four runs in seven innings to the Boston Red Sox in their clinching Game 5 of the World Series.
Kershaw’s struggles have not only been real, but also symbolic, as he has been the mound for the Dodgers’ last loss of the postseason for the last three years and five of the last six years.
There is a chance the Dodgers could pitch Kershaw in relief in Game 5 if necessary. In an early October that already feels like so many dark and late Octobers, he’ll likely welcome that chance.