The eyes of the baseball world were intently tuned into game 4 of the NLDS between the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals Tuesday evening and not just to hear the euphoric low-toned belches of excitement from Mr. Joe Buck.
Instead, viewers were captivated by the golden locks of Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw who is regarded by many to be hands down the best pitcher in the game.
Some analysts have even gone as far as to lobby for Kershaw being the National League MVP this season despite missing the entire month of April and only participating every fifth day.
Kershaw’s magical season can properly be put into perspective thanks to these amazing stats: He is the first pitcher in Major League history to win the ERA title in four consecutive seasons.
Out of the 27 games he managed to start, he won an astounding 21 of them, making him only the second pitcher in MLB history to accomplish that feat (of course we all remember the great Fred Goldsmith first accomplishing this back in 1880).
And finally, he is only the second pitcher in the illustrious history of the Dodgers to strikeout 200+ hitters in five straight seasons (matching the legendary Sandy Koufax).
I bet most of you are thinking: Hey, those stats seem really familiar? Well, you would be absolutely correct because I stole them straight from the Fox telecast. Take THAT Joe Buck!
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Kershaw has been the epitome of an ace for the Dodgers ever since he entered the majors, prompting the swimming-in-cash franchise to throw $215 million over seven years this offseason. Despite the gaudy numbers he posts during the regular season (21-3, 1.77 ERA, 239 k’s in 2014) there is one tiny blip in Kershaw’s resume.
He can’t seem to figure out the St. Louis Cardinals in the postseason.
I would have to say that game 4 was the biggest start of Kershaw’s career up this point considering the circumstances. He struggled against the Cards last season in the NLCS, losing both of his starts, including the series concluding game 6.
This year, he struggled again in game 1, unraveling in the seventh inning en route to giving up eight earned runs in a Dodgers loss. Entering his start in game 4, Kershaw’s postseason ERA was a mediocre 5.20.
No matter how much greatness a pitcher showcases throughout his career in the regular season, their legacy (I hate that word but it applies here) is elevated through postseason excellence.
Andy Pettitte could always be relied on during the postseason when the Yankees needed him most, thus making him one of the most revered big game pitchers ever (ignore me for being a homer).
I bet John Lackey could sit at home all season until October and still go out there and throw at least six scoreless innings. Some pitchers are just wired differently and Kershaw had yet to prove that he belonged amongst this elite company in the postseason up to this point.
Game 4 was his chance to change the narrative of his career moving forward.
In a contrasting opinion to Buck, Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci, I thought Kershaw appeared tentative in the early going against the top of the Cardinals order. He was trying to be too perfect with his pitches and was looking to avoid making a mistake rather than getting the hitters out.
I know he struck out the side in the first inning despite this (because he is really freaking good) but it wasn’t in the cleanest fashion. With Kershaw’s stuff, he should be the aggressor each and every at bat.
As the game progressed, Kershaw seemed to settle in and find a happy place that only he can reach. After Hanley Ramirez made a beautiful diving stop on a Matt Adams screamer for a double play, Kershaw relaxed.
He began to mow his way through the St. Louis order. Working on three days rest, it was a important for him to keep his pitch count and amount of stressful innings down. Up until the seventh inning he was able to do that.
After two flukey hits to lead off the seventh inning, Kershaw was just beginning to exceed the 100 pitch plateau, leaving manager Don Mattingly with an interesting decision to make.
Cardinals’ lefty Matt Adams was due up next with runners on first and second and nobody out. Due to the shakiness of the Dodgers bullpen up to now, the right decision looked to be leaving Kershaw in to face the left-handed swinging Adams.
Plus, it always makes more sense to go down with your best rather than the likes of J.P. Howell right?
So Mattingly stuck with his guy, but with one menacing swat from Matt Adams, everything unraveled for Kershaw and the Dodgers once again. Adams smacked a hanging curveball into the right field bullpen that just outlasted a sprinting Matt Kemp.
Just like that, Kershaw’s masterpiece had turned into a winter full of questions. He knows it too, the way he bowed his head after the ball cleared the fence says it all.
Oct 7, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcherClayton Kershaw
(22) reacts after giving up a three-run home run to St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams (32) in the 7th inning during game four of the 2014 NLDS baseball playoff game at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
The million dollar question everyone will be asking during the upcoming months: would you want Clayton Kershaw on the mound with your team facing elimination? Based on his postseason track record, the obvious answer for the number crunchers of the world would be no.
However, game 4 showed me that Kershaw is capable of flushing away the critics and throwing a quality game when his team needs it.
Yes, I realize he gave up the game-winning home run and will take the loss, but I would not put this loss on him entirely. He made one mistake, and Matt Adams made him pay for it.
I don’t think that should negate the entirety of his start though. He went out there, gave everything he had for his team on three days rest with people doubting him and threw up a quality start.
The problem with the Dodgers in game 4 was their missed chances offensively (with runners in scoring position especially), not Clayton Kershaw.
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It is going to be a long offseason for the Dodgers and Kershaw respectively. There are a lot of questions regarding the future of the outfield, the bullpen and what they will choose to do with shortstop Hanley Ramirez who will be a free agent this offseason.
The doubters regarding Kershaw in a big game setting may start to get louder after another forgettable postseason showing. Chances are, however, that he will have another chance at redemption next October after the Dodgers break the bank to improve their roster during the winter.
Until then, Kershaw will remain baseball’s version of Peyton Manning. Unbelievable to watch in the regular season but there is something lacking once October rolls around. The Cardinals are to Kershaw what the Patriots were to Manning early in his career.
One of these days, he has to get over the hump. He is too great not to.