Stories emerged that, after the Nationals sent the Dodgers home for the winter Wednesday night, Dodger fans between rage and sorrow ran over Clayton Kershaw jerseys outside Dodger Stadium. Maybe someone should ask them if they could have done it better in front of 55,000 in the park and a few million in front of television sets.
You and me know the answer damn well. Joe and Jane Fan wouldn’t have had one thirty-second of the guts to go out there and taken the risk Kershaw took when manager Dave Roberts pushed both men’s luck and sent Kershaw out to start the top of the eighth.
By all right of logic Roberts should have given Kershaw a pat on the fanny, a big hearty thank you for striking Adam Eaton out to get the Dodgers out of a seventh-inning jam, and the rest of the night off, and then sent Kenta Maeda out for the eighth to do what Roberts in his original mind thought he should do, have Maeda dealing with Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto.
Kershaw’s professional enough to go out and try to do his job when called upon. If you think he went back out for the top of the eighth knowing he’d serve back-to-back pitches to be hit for back-to-back home runs, just mosey on back to the Flat Earth Society.
“We win as a team, we lose as a team,” mourned reliever Kenley Jansen, who’d made two division series appearances and struck out two in an inning and two-thirds’ work without so much as an accidental bump but whom, for whatever reason, Roberts didn’t want to trust while the Dodgers still had a 3-1 Game Five lead.
Tell it to Kershaw, as his teammates generally did after the Nats buried the Dodgers, 7-3, thanks to Howie Kendrick. He may or may not believe you. Even though he probably knows his overall body of work has a space for his plaque in the Hall of Fame in due course, Kershaw has a hard time forgiving himself for the too-well-chronicled hellhound on his postseason trail.
“That’s the hardest part every year,” lamented the lefthander whose beard doesn’t quite negate a still-boyish face that just had the friendly grin wiped off by the neighbourhood bully. “When you don’t win the last game of the season and you’re to blame, it’s not fun . . . Everything people say is true right now about the postseason. I understand that. Nothing I can do about it right now. It’s a terrible feeling, it really is.”
Kershaw is too polite and too self-critical to allow himself the thought that maybe, just maybe, his immediate supervisor set him up to fail.
When he relieved Game Five starter Walker Buehler in the seventh, after Buehler’s magnificent performance was punctured by a frightening drill of Kurt Suzuki leading to first and second and one out, Kershaw looked like the man of the moment striking Eaton out on three pitches to retire the side unscathed. And the Dodgers were a mere six outs from going to the National League Championship Series.
But in the eighth Kershaw threw Rendon a 1-0 fastball that looked like it would nick the floor of the strike zone and Rendon managed to send it over the left field fence. The next pitch Kershaw threw was a slider that hung to Soto, and Soto hung it into the right field bleachers. Then Roberts reached for Maeda. And Maeda struck out the side.
You can blame Kershaw for allowing the game to be tied up at three if you must. But he wasn’t anywhere near the mound when Kendrick turned on a down-and-in fastball with the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the tenth and sent it up and over the center field fence.
Kershaw wasn’t but Joe Kelly was. Kelly, who’d suffered through a shoulder-troubled season about which “modest” may be an understatement. Kelly, who’d gone through the Nats in order in the ninth and provoked Roberts to push their luck again.
Kelly, whom Roberts trusted over Jansen and trade deadline pickup Adam Kolarek’s 0.77 ERA since becoming a Dodger and spotless division series work to date. Kelly, who surrendered maybe the single most humiliating hit against the Dodgers since Bobby Thomson’s was-it-or-wasn’t-it-tainted pennant winning Shot Heard ‘Round the World.
Not even the destruction wreaked by Red Sox spare part Steve Pearce in Game Five of last year’s World Series hit that far below the Dodger belt.
The worst part isn’t just that Kershaw’s getting the blame yet again for his manager setting him up for failure. It’s that he doesn’t quite understand and may never really know why he can be pitching’s version of Masterpiece Theater during the regular season but pitching’s version of My Mother, the Car in the postseason.
Don’t dismiss it as the pressure getting to him once and for all time. A man who lets pressure get to him is a man who wouldn’t pick himself up and try again over and over and over again. Say whatever else you want about Kershaw but you won’t get a conviction if you charge him with lacking fortitude.
Kershaw has had his moments of postseason triumph, few though they’ve been. The failures have outweighed them so profoundly they’re all but forgotten. And he’s not the pitcher he used to be anymore. The bullet fastball and shark-bite slider are gone. He spent this season remaking himself into a pitcher who survives by thought and guile. His 3.03 regular-season ERA is the highest he’s posted since his 2009 breakout, but a lot of pitchers would drink hemlock if they thought it would get their ERAs down to that number.
It’s bad enough that the sports goat business is still doing boffo business with Joe and Jane Fan. It’s worse when you see a man go out under the most ferocious pressure in games, with no thought in his mind other than doing his job with as little thought of failure as possible, no matter how often he’s been beaten under that pressure in the past, and get beaten on the spot.
Joe and Jane Fan can never admit to themselves that the other guys can be just a little bit better. It can only be their guys stinking up the joint as usual. If Rendon and Soto had missed by even less than a hair, they’d be calling for Kershaw’s statue outside Dodger Stadium.
They can’t admit Rendon and Soto were just better in those two fateful moments. No other explanation is acceptable. So they run over Kershaw’s jerseys in the Dodger Stadium parking lot with the minds of four year olds who’ve just been told no milk and cookies today.
Because he’s a Hall of Famer in waiting otherwise who’s been turned into a postseason pinata for too long. Well, I get that. But I also get that you could fill a room with the Hall of Famers who were bested with championships on the line. I won’t even begin to think now of the Hall of Famers who never got a chance to play for a championship at all.
Or the genuinely great teams who got shoved to one side in the World Series or before the postseason ended. The 1952-53 Boys of Summer, anyone? The 1954 Indians? The 1969 Orioles? The 2001 Mariners? Almost every Brave in creation between 1991 and 2005?
And guess what happened the morning after?
The sun still rose. The flora still bloomed. The fauna still played. The government continued its mischief. The nation still went to work, went to school, went about its everyday business. The world didn’t come spinning to a dead halt. Not even in southern California, not even for Dodger fans who’ve seen their team win a seventh straight National League West and come up short two stops short of the Promised Land.
And nobody figured out a way to overthrow the single most unimpeachable law of games, the law that says somebody’s going to be better than somebody in that sliver of space separating triumph from disaster.
“Spring training’s going to come,” Kershaw finally said. “I’m going to have to be ready to pitch and do the job the best we can.” He probably has lots of baseball miles to go, yet, before he sleeps. It won’t be his job to reconstruct the Dodger bullpen or augment a starting rotation that’s showing its age.
He doesn’t deserve to be harried to the rack of his regrets because his immediate supervisor pushed both their luck Wednesday night or because two Nats hitters were better than his best in the worst possible moment. Or, because the Dodgers had no answer other than a stranded hit batsman in the eighth, a stranded one-out baserunner on a single in the ninth, and the side gone in order in the tenth.
But Joe and Jane Dodger Fan don’t want to hear that now. They may not want to hear it until spring training, if that soon. It was so much more fun to just run over Kershaw jerseys. The only shock is that they didn’t burn Kershaw in effigy. Oops. Better not give them any more bright ideas.