ARLINGTON, Tex. — When he’s working as he did Tuesday night, methodically and breezily in his home state of Texas, it’s easy to forget Clayton Kershaw is the most star-crossed character of the past decade of Octobers, and maybe going back decades before. He’ll sling a slider up there, and then another, and the hitters flail, and you just think of him as a master craftsman at the height of his powers. Take away all those ulcer-inducing moments from years past and what remains is art and athleticism, again and again and again.
“You can appreciate and totally see why he’s heading to the Hall of Fame one day,” Tampa Bay Rays Manager Kevin Cash said, “when he’s done.”
Which he’s not. The scars are there, maybe hidden under Kershaw’s beard. This World Series is unique and all, played at a neutral site as a nod to the novel coronavirus pandemic. But whether it’s Dodger Stadium or Globe Life Field, Kershaw is an October constant. No figure here is worthy of more attention, more fascination, more sympathy — all of it.
The Los Angeles Dodgers may not win this World Series, and Kershaw may still have an opportunity to undo the ungodly good he did Tuesday night, when he mastered the Rays for six rocking-chair innings of a resounding 8-3 victory in Game 1 in which he allowed just two hits, struck out eight and needed all of 78 pitches.
“We know it’s just one,” Kershaw said. It didn’t sound cliche. It sounded sage. Even scarred.
The most mesmerizing player here is Mookie Betts, the Dodgers’ right fielder, whose sixth-inning homer was his second-best play of the night — outdone by an instinctive, crack-of-the-bat scamper home on an infield grounder, the play that gave birth to the Dodgers’ four-run fifth. And yet Betts — a World Series champion when he helped the Boston Red Sox beat the Dodgers in 2018 who is pursuing the same prize in the opposite uniform now — can’t rival Kershaw for October memories, so many of them painful. Not just for him. Merely to watch.
And yet, here he is, trying again.
“It’s hard not to think about winning,” Kershaw said. “It’s hard not to think about what that might feel like.”
Easy, now. The list and the examples of gut punches can come later, because they’re still pertinent even as he’s trying to push past them. Either way, know Kershaw is one of the reasons MLB needed the Dodgers to get here. The Atlanta Braves, vanquished in a stellar National League Championship Series, have one of the game’s most electric young players in Ronald Acuña Jr. and seemingly all kinds of staying power to make October runs in years to come. But they don’t have a figure anywhere near as compelling as Kershaw. No one else in the sport does.
The stats to build the case for Kershaw as an October choker are right there: His ERA in 357 regular season appearances is 2.43, and his ERA in 35 postseason games before Tuesday was 4.31. Dig further, and there are more oddities. In 354 regular season starts, he has allowed five or more earned runs 24 times — fewer than twice a season, less than 7 percent of his outings. In 29 postseason starts, he has given up at least five six times — more than once every five starts.
Flip that stat another way: In 11 postseason starts — including his one-run outing Tuesday — Kershaw has allowed either zero or one earned runs. That’s more than once every three times out, which sounds pretty darned good. Consider, though, over the course of his career, he has done that 179 times in the regular season — almost exactly half his starts — and you get an idea not only how extraordinary he is as a pitcher but how much more ordinary he has been come October.
Still, labeling Kershaw an October bust is far too easy, far too simplistic. It’s not all bad, even if it somehow all leads to heartache. Shoot, earlier this month, he opened his postseason with eight three-hit, 13-strikeout, scoreless innings against Milwaukee. He began the 2018 playoffs by two-hitting Atlanta for eight innings. He shoved against the Chicago Cubs in Game 2 of the 2016 NLCS (seven two-hit innings), against the New York Mets in the division series the year before (seven three-hit innings). He has finished off series in relief, most notably the 2016 NLDS at Nationals Park, when he got Daniel Murphy — at the time, one of the most dangerous hitters alive — to pop up with the tying run on second.
So he is not full-on allergic to October. It just gives him a more-than-occasional rash. Unfortunately, because the Dodgers’ most recent World Series title came in 1988 — the year Kershaw was born — the rashes are what we remember. Since 2009, nobody has made more postseason starts. So there are too many opportunities to look at what has become an iconic image — Kershaw, bent at the waist, bare left hand on his left knee, gloved right hand on his right knee, his gaze both into the ground and into nothingness.
A sample, from October 2014, right when Kershaw had finished a season that would lead to his third Cy Young Award — because he went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA. In the first game of the division series against St. Louis, Kershaw’s night: two hits through six innings and a 6-2 lead, then an implosion highlighted by Matt Carpenter’s three-run double in a six-run seventh that led to a 10-9 loss. To that point, he had allowed eight runs in a game twice in his career. He has not done so since.
That night — after Kershaw said, among other things, “It’s an awful feeling to let your teammates down” — he left Dodger Stadium via an elevator packed with stadium workers and sportswriters who vapidly chatted away. I’ll never forget his stare as he leaned against an elevator wall. So hollow. So haunting.
And that was four days before Kershaw unleashed the 102nd pitch of his outing in Game 4 against the Cardinals, a curveball to St. Louis’s Matt Adams. To that point in his career, Kershaw had thrown — according to PITCHf/x — 2,533 curveballs in his regular season career. Precisely one had been hit for a homer. And yet with two on and a 2-0 Dodgers lead, that’s what Adams did, the blow that ended Kershaw’s season.
Those disappointments were just two of too many. The most recent came last year, in relief in Game 5 of the division series against Washington: home run to Anthony Rendon, home run to Juan Soto. Lead gone. Season over. No ring. Again.
And yet Tuesday night, after he battled his slider in the first inning and mastered it thereafter, he sounded positively gleeful merely to take to the stage — site of all those tragedies — again.
“So much gratitude,” he said. “Just so thankful. It’s just — it’s incredible. Nothing is deserved in this game.”
Nothing, maybe, except Clayton Kershaw winning a World Series. He is, for now, defined by what’s behind. He could forever be defined by what’s ahead.
Major League Baseball playoffs: What to read
The World Series is set. Here’s what you need to know.
World Series info and schedule | Scoreboard | The latest news
Results: Dodgers cruise to a Game 1 win
The teams: It’s clear why the Dodgers love Mookie Betts. It’s a mystery why he was traded. | The Rays’ Randy Arozarena is the breakout star of the MLB playoffs | Cody Bellinger says he regrets NLCS celebration that dislocated his shoulder
Columns: As Clayton Kershaw tries to pitch his way to October glory, you just can’t look away | The World Series has framed my life. After 44 straight, I’m sitting this one out. | In baseball, stocking up on average players is a good way to be great
On the broadcasts: On-field interviews (and f-bombs) are now part of playoff baseball, and not everyone’s thrilled
From the regular season: What does baseball sound like during a pandemic? | Svrluga: Baseball has never been so lonely