Column: The decision to pull Clayton Kershaw out of a perfect game? It was perfect
Clayton Kershaw was removed from the game after seven innings despite having not allowed a baserunner.
Dave Roberts pulled his pitcher even though he was two innings from achieving a baseball feat matched by only 23 pitchers in major league history.
In a 7-0 victory over the Minnesota Twins at Minneapolis’ frigid Target Field on Wednesday afternoon, the Dodgers eschewed a moment of individual glory for an eventual opportunity at team greatness.
Seriously, is there anything more perfect?
Though national baseball figures wept and gnashed over the Dodgers’ decision not to allow Kershaw to pursue the final six outs after retiring the first 21 Twins on only 80 pitches — “what’s the game coming to?” tweeted an apoplectic Reggie Jackson — Dodgers fans should celebrate.
Less than a week into the 2022 season, your team already has its sights set squarely on October. They’re not going to be suckered by a headline in April. They’re not going to risk sacrificing six months of health for one afternoon of buzz. They know about perfect endings, and they knew they’re found not in the fifth game in the spring, but in a seventh game in the fall.
This was not about Clayton Kershaw’s first start of the season. This was about his final start of the season.
“Bigger things, man,” Kershaw told reporters afterward. “Bigger things.”
Clayton Kershaw struck out 13 in seven perfect innings for the Dodgers before giving way to the bullpen. Cody Bellinger hits one of four Dodgers homers.
When the Dodgers step on to the Dodger Stadium third-base line for pregame introductions in Thursday night’s home opener against the Cincinnati Reds, Kershaw should receive an even-louder-than-normal ovation for the selflessness he showed in willingly stepping away from what could have been a memorable moment of personal achievement. Roberts should also receive an ovation for being willing to accept the heat for putting the team ahead of the player.
“There’s a lot of people that are cheering for the Dodgers, not only just for today and Clayton to throw a no-hitter, but for the Dodgers to win the World Series,” Roberts told reporters. “For us to do that, we need him healthy.”
Critics of Roberts will angrily note the incredible stat that he has managed the only two pitchers in history to be pulled from a perfect game after seven innings — Rich Hill in 2016, and Kershaw on Wednesday. But while the decision on Hill was questionable — it was late in the season and Hill didn’t want to leave the mound — anybody who closely follows the Dodgers surely understands that the Kershaw decision was a no-brainer.
“We’re here to win and this was the right choice,” Kershaw said.
The story of Wednesday actually began last October, when Kershaw left a game against the Milwaukee Brewers because of elbow discomfort that ended his season.
Here’s what appeared in this column then:
“When Clayton Kershaw trudged off the mound in the second inning Friday night because of left forearm discomfort, it could have been just another painful chapter in the recent saga of a Hall of Fame Dodger in physical decline.
“Or it could have been goodbye.”
Some Dodgers insiders thought his career might be over. There was talk of surgery. There were whispers about retirement. Even if he came back to the Dodgers, nobody really thought he’d be ready for the start of this season. Any Kershaw innings before May would have been considered a blessing.
Even though he looked surprisingly strong this spring, he was pushed back to the fifth starter in the rotation and given the final opening season slot in Minnesota. He would be brought along slowly. He would be treated carefully. His workload would be monitored closely. Everyone held their breath.
Then he took the mound and was literally unhittable.
Twenty-one batters, 13 strikeouts. Twenty-seven swings, 17 misses. In his first start. At age 34. After he was supposedly finished. In his 15 years here, he has perhaps never been more remarkable.
“He was cruising,” his catcher Austin Barnes said. “He threw the ball really, really well.”
The final out in the seventh was a sharp grounder by Gio Urshela that was niftily picked up on a short hop by a shifted Gavin Lux. The ball was smoked. Kershaw knew it was time. Before the eighth, he stayed in the dugout with a smile. If he didn’t agree with the decision, he would have put up a fight. He clearly did not.
Like he said, bigger things.
“I knew going in that my pitch count wasn’t going to be 100, let alone 90 or whatever,” he said, later adding, “Blame it on the lockout. Blame it on me not picking up a baseball until January. My slider was horrible the last two innings. It didn’t have the bite. It was time.”
Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer remains on paid administrative leave as Major League Baseball determines whether he violated its sexual assault policy.
For some other organizations, the chance at making history would be too great to resist.
Take the New York Mets in 2012, when Johan Santana was left on the mound to throw an untenable 134 pitches in authoring the first no-hitter in franchise history. It is no coincidence that, after that season, Santana never pitched in the major leagues again.
The Mets needed that. The Dodgers don’t. They’re not playing for memories, they’re playing for rings. They’re playing for a World Series championship that might not be possible without a healthy Hall of Fame pitcher.
Clayton Kershaw knows this, and thus sacrificed a place in the baseball record books for the good of his team’s greater goals. He turned a cliché into a truth. He played for the name on the front of his jersey, not the name on the back.
On a day he was denied perfection, he has perhaps never been more perfect.
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