Clayton Kershaw’s darkest hour

2019-10-10 ClaytonKershaw

Clayton Kershaw.

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.

Slam, dunk, don’t stop the dance

2019-10-09 HowieKendrick

Howie Kendrick swinging for a lifetime’s worth of filet mignon on the Washington house.

Dave Roberts learned the hard way Wednesday night that it takes the same number of moves to get destroyed as it takes to start unfathomable destruction. One.

And a one-time Dodger and Angel alike named Howie Kendrick got reminded all over again just how quickly you can go from a prospective bust—including three fielding errors all division series long—to a game-busting hero with one swing that looked so effortless it looked concurrently as if you could have done under sedation.

Fifteen years ago, with his Red Sox three outs from being swept out of an American League Championship Series, Roberts stole second on Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera to start the unlikeliest comeback of maybe all time. The 2004 Red Sox didn’t lose another game on their way to breaking their actual or alleged curse.

But this is 2019. Roberts is now a reasonably respected major league manager with a fourth straight first place finish and fourth straight postseason trip on his resume. And the way this trip ended Wednesday night sends lesser men past the nearest tavern and right to the distillery to drown themselves in the vats.

And Kendrick, 0-for-4 as he checked in at the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the tenth, delivered one swing that’ll save him a small fortune in Beltway filet mignon dinners for the rest of his life.

It nailed the Dancing Nats’ trip to the National League Championship Series with a 7-3 division series Game Five triumph. Their motto now might be the name of a vintage song by rock legend Bryan Ferry: “Don’t Stop the Dance.” And they danced the 106 game-winning Dodgers home for maybe the most bitter winter of their existence since maybe their Brooklyn generations.

For the rest of his life Roberts is liable to face demands to know why he didn’t quit while he was ahead, 3-1 to be exact, accept Clayton Kershaw’s inning-and-threat-ending strikeout of Adam Eaton in the top of the seventh, pat Kershaw on his Hall of Fame-in-waiting fanny with a hearty “Thank you Kersh!” and go to his real bullpen post haste.

But Kershaw didn’t get his pat on the fanny. He got to open the eighth. He got battered back to back on back-to-back pitches by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. The first flew just over the left field fence, the second flew into the first couple of rows of the right field bleachers. Vaporising young stud starter Walker Buehler’s magnificent evening’s work and bringing the Nats back from the living dead.

Then Roberts reached for Kenta Maeda. And Maeda promptly struck out the side. Forget the second guessing. This was time for the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth guesses.

Roberts got what he’d asked for out of Kershaw to end the seventh. Why on earth push his own and Kershaw’s luck, knowing only too well that Kershaw’s Hall of Fame resume already has the long-enough sidebar of postseason humiliation as an attachment?

Because, he acknowledged after the defeat, he liked Kershaw against Rendon and Soto just a little bit more.

“[T]he success that Clayton’s had against Soto with the two-run lead, I’ll take Clayton any day in that situation,” Roberts said after the game. “I just think it’s one of those where it was easy for me to get Clayton, with the low pitches to get Rendon and to go out there and get Soto. And to have Kenta behind him. That was my thought, and not have Kenta go through Soto.”

Ancient history teaches that a Cardinals manager named Johnny Keane refused to even think about hooking Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in a threatening World Series Game Seven because he had a commitment to Gibson’s heart. Roberts has the same commitment to Kershaw’s. Keane and Gibson got a World Series win. Roberts and Kershaw got humiliated.

The problem is that Kershaw, one of the nicest men and beloved teammates in the game, goes into a postseason with a hellhound on his trail. And he knows it, sadly enough. After reinventing himself this season as a pitcher who can and does survive on guile to go with the smarts he’s had since his peak seasons, Kershaw couldn’t outsmart Rendon and Soto when he needed to most of all. More acutely, Kershaw can no longer deny what people have said of his postseason work for too long.

“Everything people say is true right now about the postseason,” he said after Game Five, soberly but sadly. “I’ve had to do it so much. I don’t know. It might linger for a while. I might not get over it. I don’t know.”

Roberts went with Kershaw’s heart. He should have gone with his own head. He let sentiment and heart overrule baseball. Oh, he got Maeda not going through Soto all right. He just had to watch Soto drive a second stake into the Dodgers’ heart to get it. Then, he sent Joe Kelly out to work a spotless ninth but pushed his luck yet again.

With further viable bullpen options to spare, a luxury Nationals manager Dave Martinez didn’t have, Roberts sent Kelly almost inexplicably out to work the tenth. Where Kelly walked Eaton on six pitches, surrendered a double to Rendon that was ruled ground-rule when it stuck in the fence, and handed Soto the intentional walk.

And, after Kendrick fouled off a nasty enough breaking ball, where Kelly served him a fastball toward the low inside corner. Not low enough. Kendrick drove it right over the center field fence. You thought the Nats were baseball’s greatest dancers before? Kendrick sent them into dugout moves even Soul Train never busted.

It isn’t just Kershaw for whom Roberts has to answer. Where was Kenley Jansen? Where was young lefty Adam Kolarek? Dodger fans will ask those two questions for the rest of the century. When not asking why Roberts still trusted Kelly despite his shoulder issues and season’s disasters. “Trust Kelly more than your closer Kenley Jansen,” said manager turned MLB Network analyst Kevin Kennedy. “I don’t have an answer for that. Does  Dave?”

The answer may or may not determine Roberts’s future in Los Angeles.

But what a moment it must have been for Martinez, when Kendrick exploded and Nats center fielder Michael A. Taylor hustled in and took a dive to snag Justin Turner’s game and series ending sinking liner. Game Five was the Nats’ entire season in microcosm: early and often faltering; later and often flying. The guillotine built for Martinez in May has been put into storage.

The only bad news for the Nats on the night might have been Stephen Strasburg. He was left almost an afterthought after the Nats’ late game destruction. He merely shook off Max Muncy’s two-run homer in the first and Enrique Hernandez’s leadoff solo bomb in the second to keep the Nats in the game almost as deftly as Buehler seemed to own them.

He’s gone from the world’s most feted draft pick to a pitcher who’s fought injuries to become good, often excellent, and periodically great. He’s comfortable with himself. He’s unflappable to the point that some people mistake him for emotionless. And he knows what he’s doing on the mound even when he’s punctured early.

“The first couple innings, I didn’t hit my spot, and they made me pay for it,” said the 31-year-old righthander who still looks like he’s at freshman orientation despite the beard that’s all grown up from having been born a mere goatee. “As a starter, you just kind of learn how you’ve got to trust your stuff, trust that it’s going to come to you. And it did.”

Tanner Rainey dispatched the Dodgers in order in the seventh. And Patrick Corbin—who’d been so badly humiliated in Game Three—got his chance for redemption in the eighth. Other than plunking Turner Corbin got it, zipping through the inning, including back-to-back strikeouts on Cody Bellinger and pinch-hitter David Freese.

Then it was Daniel Hudson shaking off a one-out single in the ninth. Then it was Kendrick obliterating Kelly and the Dodgers in the tenth. Then it was Sean Doolittle, who had his moments of doubt and disaster on the season before finishing up at reasonable strength, getting three including Taylor’s game-ending swan dive.

There wasn’t a Hunter Strickland or Wander Suero to be found. For all anyone knows, they were under strict orders not to move even their pinkies in the bullpen—under penalty of death, if need be.

“Today’s the biggest game of the year,” Martinez likes to say, to his players and to anyone else who cares to listen, “and we want to go 1-0 today.” He got what he asked for and more. It got the Nats to the second National League Championship Series in franchise history. (Their first? In 1981—as the Montreal Expos.)

For a very long time the article of faith, though not always accurate, was “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” These Dancing Nats have a better than even shot at making it, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League.”

It’d beat the living hell out of everything else attached to Washington these and most days.