ST. LOUIS — This couldn’t happen twice, considering who stood on the mound and how he was throwing. Forget the chattering classes and the drawbacks of pitching on three days’ rest. This was Clayton Kershaw, goshdarnit, and what mattered was what was happening right at the moment, the strings he was pulling, the orchestra he was conducting. Look at those numbers, the six scoreless innings, the one hit, the nine strikeouts. For goodness sake, he had allowed the St. Louis Cardinals to hit two balls out of the infield. So you keep him in, and you win.
“He had his best stuff today,” Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday said, and his best stuff is about the best in the game.
How, then, is Kershaw possibly left standing on the mound, bent at the waist, bare left hand on his left knee, gloved right hand on his right, gazing at the dirt below? This is a replay of four days ago, right? That was when Kershaw — business card: Best Pitcher on the Planet — took a 6-1 lead against St. Louis and was somehow charged with eight runs. That kind of thing is an aberration, not to be repeated, certainly not in a week’s time.
But no, this was Tuesday, Game 4 of the National League Division Series, and Kershaw may prefer the view of that patch of dirt than the long, cold stare of winter that awaits him now. He looked down at the mound when his 102nd pitch became perhaps the only one he didn’t locate where he wanted. He looked down at the mound when Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams took his best swing at it, a three-run homer. He looked down at the mound when a 2-0 lead became a 3-2 loss. His offseason might be full of awards. But it started Tuesday night well before he was ready, with a flight back to Los Angeles and a clear itinerary for who knows how long.
“It’s hard to think of specifics right now,” Kershaw said outside the visitor’s clubhouse at Busch Stadium. “The season ended, and I was a big part of the reason why. It doesn’t feel good regardless of how you pitched. I can’t really put it into words right now. Just bad déjà vu all over again.”
Déjà vu not only because the Cardinals ended Kershaw’s 2013 by thumping him, 9-0, in the National League Championship Series, but because he was brilliant for six innings Friday night in Los Angeles, then snake-bitten in the seventh. Of all the peculiarities that went into these two complete about-faces, this might illustrate the utter contrast best: In the two games, the Cardinals were 3 for 38 against Kershaw through the sixth inning. In the seventh, they were 9 for 11.
“It’s just like one inning gets me every time,” Kershaw said.
Looking into how unlikely this was leads straight down a rabbit hole. But on this day, forget about the short rest. The only time Kershaw had previously started on three days’ rest came last fall, when he went six innings and allowed two runs against the Atlanta Braves. But neither of the runs were earned, he needed just 91 pitches to navigate the outing — which he left tied 2-2 — and the Dodgers went on to win.
How did Kershaw feel heading to the seventh?
“Good,” he said. The most recent bit of evidence: striking out the side in the sixth. “The epitome of a shutdown inning,” catcher A.J. Ellis said.
So forget the two hits that started the rally, because Matt Holliday is a seasoned, monstrous right-handed hitter, and his single up the middle on Kershaw’s 97th pitch was reasonable, glancing off the glove of second baseman Dee Gordon. Calling for Kershaw’s ouster at that moment would have been calling on the Dodger relievers, who appear to carry blowtorches in their back pockets. Made no sense.
So up came Cardinals shortstop Jhonny Peralta, another seasoned right-handed hitter, and he muscled Kershaw’s 100th pitch back up the middle, just out of the reach of shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Runners on first and second. Now, the tying run was on base.
But still, there were limits. “We knew it was going to be three hitters,” Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said. And the third was Adams, who swings left-handed.
Whatever the questions about Mattingly’s fitness to manage this $235 million team — and there will be more, as he benched his most dynamic hitter, outfielder Yasiel Puig, Tuesday, then used him as pinch runner rather than a pinch hitter — the logic Mattingly used in sticking with Kershaw here was sound, the matchup favorable.
Left-handed hitters vs. Kershaw this season: a .193 average, .225 on-base percentage and .252 slugging percentage, with one homer allowed in 143 plate appearances. Adams vs. left-handed pitchers this year: .190/.231/.298, with three homers in 130 plate appearances.
Then, consider Kershaw’s mastery of his curveball Tuesday. He throws it from a high arm slot, right where his four-seam fastball comes from. The fastball can ride past your eyes.
The curve can dive to the dirt.
“Today, he could throw it for strikes,” Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter said of the curve. “And he could bounce it when he needed a strikeout.”
“Today,” Ellis said, “it was really on point.”
Adams could have been overmatched. His struggles against the pitch were such that he worked off a pitching machine that mimicked curveballs from a lefty. “It’s no secret,” Adams said.
Kershaw started him with a 93 mph fastball that Adams tipped foul. So Ellis called for the curve. What could go wrong? According to PitchF/x, Kershaw had thrown 2,533 curveballs in his regular season career. Number that had been hit out: One.
So here it came, 73 mph, breaking. But he didn’t bury it. It stayed up, just a hair.
“He threw 102 pitches,” Ellis said, “and maybe one didn’t get to where we wanted it to get to.”
Adams took a ferocious, yet controlled, swing. “Matt Adams goes up there trying to hit a home run right there,” Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny said, “and he probably pops up to the first baseman.”
Instead, he put it in the Cardinals bullpen. That’s when Clayton Kershaw, the best at what he does, bent at the waist. That’s when he put his hands on his knees. That’s when he stared at the dirt below him, and when his offseason began.