And as the author of far too many October disappointments to name — too many, at least, to shrug off as sheer randomness — he is the enduring symbol, fairly or not, of the Dodgers' postseason failures during their current run of eight consecutive National League West titles.
The latest Kershaw stumble came Thursday night in Game 4 of the NL Championship Series, when he was vastly outpitched by 22-year-old Atlanta Braves rookie Bryse Wilson in a 10-2 Dodgers loss. Whether this will become the eighth straight postseason exit for the Dodgers could be learned as early as Friday night in Game 5, with the resurgent Braves now ahead 3-1 in the series.
At a point in the series when the grueling format — games every night with no off-days — is beginning to reveal its toll, the Dodgers will start right-hander Dustin May in Game 5, while the Braves are staring at a bullpen game in some fashion.
Every bit of rational logic, and every computer algorithm and betting line, suggested the Dodgers, a 43-17 juggernaut during this pandemic-shortened regular season, were headed toward a series-tying victory Thursday night.
Not only were they coming off a merciless 15-3 beatdown of the Braves in Game 3 the night before, but they were sending Kershaw to the mound to face a kid making his postseason debut, having been passed over by the Braves in each of the first two rounds. Wilson, a fourth-round draft pick in 2016, owned a career 5.91 ERA across 15 big league appearances, seven of them starts. He is known in his own clubhouse as "Lunchbox" — not because of his work ethic, but because of his shape.
But what Wilson did Thursday night — namely, outpitch a future Hall-of-Famer, limit the highest-scoring offense in baseball this season to one hit over six dazzling innings and put the Braves within one more victory of their first trip to the World Series since 1999 — will secure his place forever in Braves lore.
"Wow. That's about all I can say," Braves Manager Brian Snitker said of Wilson. "You kidding me? That kid stepped up."
Ahead of Game 4, Snitker said he would be thrilled to get four innings out of Wilson — the third consecutive rookie starter to take the mound for the Braves in this series — but when the top of the sixth rolled around, with the score tied at 1 and the top of the Dodgers' lineup about to face him for the third time, Wilson, improbably, was still in there. He mowed down the Dodgers one last time, 1-2-3, a pivotal frame that ensured the Braves could deploy only their best bullpen arms the rest of the way.
"He was in complete control," Snitker said of Wilson. "Huge, huge effort by him, [given] where we were in our bullpen."
The Dodgers managed just one hit off Wilson, a solo homer by Edwin Rios in the third. It was no stretch to call it the best start of his big league career: In only one of the previous seven had he lasted six innings, and in none of those seven had he given up as few as one hit.
"To be able to do it against someone as well-established as Clayton Kershaw is a great honor," Wilson said. "I need to trust myself. My stuff is good. Trust in that, and not be afraid of what happens after I release my pitch."
It was that same sixth inning, and the same third-time-through-the-order decision, that also proved fateful for Kershaw. As the 32-year-old lefty took the mound for the bottom half of the inning, he was facing the top of the Braves' order for the third time — a privilege the team rarely extends to anyone but him. When Ronald Acuña Jr. led off with an infield single, Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna were the next two Braves batters. Both had hit Kershaw hard in their last plate appearance — Freeman with a line out, and Ozuna's with a solo homer to left.
The Dodgers decided to leave the game in Kershaw's hands, and Freeman and Ozuna lined consecutive run-scoring doubles. It was 3-1, Kershaw was headed for the showers, and it would be 7-1 before the Dodgers could finally get out of the inning. Ozuna would add another homer in the seventh off Dylan Floro, and went 4 for 5 with four RBI.
"I felt good with Clayton right there, I really did," Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. "He gave up two groundballs [to Acuna and Freeman], and I just didn't feel like I needed to go to the pen there [for Ozuna]."
The "narrative" that Kershaw wilts in the postseason, Roberts said, "couldn't be further from the truth."
"He gave us a chance to win the baseball game," he added.
There were no visible signs of lingering issues with Kershaw's long-troublesome back, which had flared up again Tuesday and pushed back his start by two days, but his fastball was down a couple of ticks on the radar gun from where it was sitting earlier in this postseason. He also may not have expected, in a stadium with a roof, to be pitching in a wind-whipped chill.
At 6 p.m., a little more than an hour before first pitch, the 268,000-square-foot retractable roof atop Globe Life Field began to open, revealing a steel-gray, windswept sky. It was 68 degrees and falling at first pitch, with winds of 15-22 mph — the kind of night when the Texas Rangers, who moved into their new stadium this season, would have probably kept it closed. But largely due to novel coronavirus concerns, and with a crowd of 11,044 on hand, MLB decided it should be open Thursday night.
Kerhsaw's baggy uniform was flapping in the wind as if he were pitching in front of a giant, industrial fan. Every pop up was an adventure. Many deep drives appeared to die in the wind at the warning track — none more important, or more obvious, than A.J. Pollack's smash to right in the seventh with two on and nobody out, which appeared headed for the seats but settled into Acuña's glove just shy of the wall. The Dodgers will long lament the missed opportunities in that frame — their last, best chance to get back in the game — which ended when Will Smith lined out, stranding the bases loaded.
"If you have a roof, I don't know why you don't close it," said Kershaw, who added he understood the coronavirus concerns. "I just felt it was a little bit crazy enough to where they might want to close the roof. . . . But it didn't have an effect on me, no."
In all, four earned runs were charged to Kershaw over his five-plus innings of work Thursday night, raising his career ERA in the postseason to 4.31 — nearly two runs worse than his career 2.43 mark in the regular season. A pair of wins in the early rounds had lifted Kershaw's career record in the postseason to the .500 mark, but Thursday night's loss dropped him back below, at 11-12.
He has delivered legendary October performances for the Dodgers in his career, too many to name. But somehow, it's the losses that stick to him, the losses that people remember.