I didn’t watch Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday night for the drama-of- the-super-rich-and-fabulous Los Angeles Dodgers against the little-engine-that-could Tampa Bay Rays. Sure, that’s a strong narrative.
I watched to see Clayton Kershaw, one of the greatest pitchers of our time, crash and burn. I admit it. I wasn’t cheering for that to happen. It’s like staring at an accident on the tollway. You just can’t stop gaping.
Kershaw, a Hall of Fame, MVP and Cy Young winner, has made a career out of giving up back-to-back home runs in the postseason.
On Tuesday, though, he was great. Six innings, two hits, one run, as the Dodgers won 8-3. And here’s what I have to say about that:
The haunting is over. The gloom is lifted.
No, wait, I didn’t write that. That’s how Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times started his column, not today but after Game 2 of the 2016 NLCS after Kershaw pitched masterfully against the Chicago Cubs. It was a touching assurance that Kershaw had finally rid himself of his postseason demons.
A few days later, Kershaw crashed and burned, allowing the Cubs to advance to the World Series.
It’s not just a bad memory or two for Kershaw. It’s a whole career of bad postseason memories. His greatness has led the Dodgers to division titles year after year. And then he gets to the postseason and . . . well. Put it this way: He’s the most-dominant regular season pitcher of the past decade. And he had the highest postseason ERA in history of any pitcher who has thrown at least 100 innings. On Tuesday he fell to third worst at 4.21. His career regular season ERA, by contrast, is 2.44.
Kershaw has given up five runs or more in the postseason more often than any pitcher in history. As bad as that sounds, the Dodgers wouldn’t keep getting to the Series if it weren’t for him.
On Tuesday, Kershaw gave up a single and walk in the first inning, and you couldn’t stop staring. From there, though, he struck out eight and gave up only a solo home run to Kevin Kiermaier in the top of the fifth inning.
Look, everyone likes to play psychologist, and they’re doing that with Kershaw. We don’t really know what’s in his head. But it’s not a new story that all-time greats often struggle to win their first championship.
They used to say that John Elway could never win the Big One. Phil Mickelson couldn’t win a major. Typically, athletes say it doesn’t matter to them when people say this, that they don’t even hear it.
The year after Elway finally did win his first Super Bowl, I asked him about that. Is it true that you really didn’t care what people said, really didn’t feel that pressure? Elway laughed. No, he said, it wasn’t true. Winning one was huge for him. It also freed him to win another one.
Tennis player Rafael Nadal has always said that it never upsets him to lose the final of a major championship. It’s his job to do all the work to get there, and if he does that enough, he’ll win his fair share. Easy for him to say. He has won 20 majors.
But that’s the right mentality, seeing championships as opportunities. From the things Kershaw has said through the years, that’s how he seems to feel, too.
Meanwhile, the media cheer him on as if they feel bad for him, even though he’s making $31 million this year. That’s the same as the entire Rays pitching staff combined.
If you’re making that kind of money to throw a baseball, you should be able to throw it over the plate under pressure.
Theories regarding Kershaw are all over the place. At 32, he had already lost some velocity on his fastball, so he went to a place called Driveline, which Sports Illustrated described as “the Washington cutting-edge, data-driven pitching lab.’’
They found that his balance wasn’t quite right, or his body wasn’t moving in sync or something. It’s unlikely they really found much of anything, to be honest. Kershaw’s velocity hasn’t improved much since then, but that’s OK if it helps him to believe.
I suspect that Kershaw wears out late in seasons from over-pitching and too many innings. He’s also in the playoffs every year, so his seasons are long. This year, with a shortened season due to COVID, he doesn’t have as many innings on his arm.
On Tuesday, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts took Kershaw out after 6 innings even though he had thrown just 78 pitches. He had a lot more left, but so many of his postseason blowups have come in late innings. Kershaw got to leave on a good note.
Some people say the pressure is off Kershaw this year, that he is smiling more and not obsessed with his own failed perfection. Maybe, but that sounds an awful lot like “The haunting is over. The gloom is lifted.’’
We’ve heard that one for years.
We like our sports stars to come through in the biggest moments. In LA, World Series memories are Kirk Gibson’s home run when he wasn’t in any physical condition to do it. Or Bulldog Orel Hershiser pitching every game, it seemed. Or if you’re older, Sandy Koufax’s dominance.
Kershaw needs a moment like that. I can’t wait for his next start.