Dodgers let Clayton Kershaw down in Game 1 of NLCS
MILWAUKEE – Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ decade-plus relationship has been a glorious, symbiotic pairing, wanting for nothing but a World Series championship.
Friday night at Miller Park, in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against a Milwaukee Brewers club as vexing as they are talented, that connection crumbled on both ends.
The Dodgers let Kershaw down: Three errors while he was in the game, including the rare catchers’ interference gaffe, a pair of passed balls and an early-inning lethargy that put L.A. down until an awakening that came too late.
Kershaw let the Dodgers down: An inability to put away the Brewers once he found himself in a two-strike count, yielding as many walks as strikeouts, and giving up a game-tying home run to a relief pitcher, for crying out loud.
MORE FROM GAME 1
It was an ugly chapter in the book that is Clayton Kershaw, Postseason Pitcher, a never-ending story more complex than his naysayers believe, perhaps uglier than Kershaw’s true believers are willing to admit.
On this night, Kershaw was gone before the fourth inning was complete. The Dodgers rallied feverishly for four runs in the eighth and ninth innings but emerged 6-5 losers, leaving them only a precious few hours to contemplate what ails them before Saturday afternoon’s Game 2.
That’s not Kershaw’s problem: He’s likely on ice until a potential Game 5 Wednesday in Los Angeles, assuming these Brewers don’t run their winning streak to 15 games and polka right into the World Series.
Yet, it’s also impossible to ignore that at 30, Kershaw is a diminished ace from the man who won three Cy Young Awards and an MVP trophy, and been the cornerstone of this Dodgers club that’s won six consecutive National League West titles.
“He’s out on the mound competing, as much as he possibly can,” catcher Yasmani Grandal said. “We pretty much just let him down. I think that’s the biggest thing looking back on this game.”
Indeed, Grandal picked a bad time to play what might have been the worst defensive game of his career. He was almost wholly responsible for the Brewers’ go-ahead run in the third inning, as his passed ball moved a pair of runners into scoring position. Then, a catchers’ interference – Jesus Aguilar’s bat barely brushed his glove on the backswing – nullified a gorgeous diving stab of a liner by first baseman David Freese that would have been the second out.
Instead, Hernan Perez’s fly ball to center field was a sacrifice fly and 2-1 lead, rather than the third out of the inning.
“I think it was a matter of minimizing damage and, obviously, we weren’t able to do that and I was part of it,” said Grandal, who said he was caught “flat-footed” on the pair of passed balls. “I take that upon myself to be as best as I can behind the plate.”
Fair enough. Yet, there also was a time Kershaw might have punched his way out of trouble. Those days are gone, at least right now.
The man with eight seasons of at least 200 strikeouts threw 74 pitches and elicited just five swings and misses. He could set up the Brewers, but could not finish them off: Five of the eight who reached against Kershaw escaped a two-strike situation.
A fastball that decreased from an average of nearly 94 mph to not quite 91 mph in three seasons missed precious few bats. His slider lacked bite. That gorgeous curveball accounted for four of the nine outs he recorded, but the Brewers soon learned to lay off it knowing his other two pitches weren’t putting them away on this night.
Perhaps most alarmingly, it was not the Brewers’ many All-Stars who precipitated his downfall, and then buried him.
Instead, it was relief pitcher Brandon Woodruff – he of 18 career at-bats – who had the discipline to lay off a 2-and-2 curveball, foul off a fastball, and then crush a 92-mph offering over the right field wall to send Miller Park in a frenzy and tie the game, 1-1.
“I knew he could swing the bat a little bit,” Kershaw said. “I didn’t know he could do that.”
An inning later, it was the 7-8-9 men again doing the dirty work: A leadoff walk to catcher Manny Pina, a single from Orlando Arcia paired with an error from Chris Taylor. And then the good-night shot from pinch-hitter Domingo Santana: A two-run single that put the Dodgers in a 4-1 hole and, thanks to the Brewers’ vaunted bullpen, tipped the game overwhelmingly in Milwaukee’s favor.
“Sometimes,” said Kershaw, “the results are out of your hands, but you just have to make the pitches.”
In Game 1, neither happened. Kershaw’s postseason foibles have been perhaps too overblown given the massive sample size – he’s now thrown 133 postseason innings, still has a very good playoff WHIP of 1.10 and has saved the Dodgers’ season on numerous occasions – but the NLCS is his Kryptonite. He’s now 2-5 with a 5.24 ERA in 11 games, eight of them starts, in baseball’s penultimate round.
Game 2 should tip in the Dodgers’ favor. The Brewers will be without super reliever Josh Hader, who pitched three innings in Game 1. The Dodgers got six men on base against their other three top relievers – Joakim Soria, Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel – and darn near tied the game on Chris Taylor’s wall-scraping ninth-inning triple.
One win and Kershaw gets one more start at Dodger Stadium – potentially his last, given he has an opt-out clause in his contract. Yet that seems very far away on a night the future Hall of Famer struggled to get the most unheralded of hitters out.
“He’s been in the playoffs for a really long time,” says Grandal, “and he knows what he needs to do to win games and that’s all that matters. Game 5 comes around, and he’ll be the guy on the mound and he’ll be the guy who will give us a win.”
Only if he’s better than he was in Game 1. That goes for his teammates, too.