Trouble with the curve: Kershaw can't follow script

With no command of pitch, Dodgers' ace unable to extend strong postseason

October 23rd, 2016

CHICAGO -- For , narrative met reality in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.

After making so much progress this postseason to erase the notion that he can't pitch in October, Kershaw showed up to Game 6 without a curveball, and the Cubs made him pay. They coaxed 93 pitches in Kershaw's five fruitless innings on Saturday, scoring in four of those frames on the way to a pennant-clinching, 5-0 win at Wrigley Field.

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The Cubs are going to the World Series. Kershaw and the Dodgers are going home.

"Tough to swallow tonight, obviously, but I'd much rather be in this situation and fail than not be in this situation at all," Kershaw said. "As much as this does hurt, and as much as I would have liked to win tonight, I'm really thankful to be on a team that has got to be in the postseason four years in a row, and really thankful for that group in the clubhouse that has your back in these situations, and thankful I get to come back next year and try again."

Six days earlier on the same field, Kershaw pitched seven scoreless innings in a 1-0 Dodgers win in Game 2. Saturday was different. led off the bottom of the first inning with a double, smacked a sharp single and Kershaw was in a 1-0 deficit after seven pitches. After Dodgers left fielder dropped a fly ball for a costly error, 's sacrifice fly made it 2-0 as Kershaw logged his first out.

Fowler singled home another run in the second inning and and hit solo home runs in the fourth and fifth, respectively.

Game 6 breakdown: Cubs get to Kershaw

Before he could throw a pitch in the sixth, Kershaw's outing, and his injury-interrupted season, was over. He fell to 1-3 with a 6.28 ERA in five career postseason elimination games.

"I think sometimes there's a fine line in pitching where you try too hard and it actually works against you," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "I'm not speaking for him, but he was obviously amped up and wanted to be there, and you saw in the first inning -- the high sliders, where they took the ball the other way with a couple of pitches, where we dropped the ball.

"Nothing started out well."

Over in the Cubs' dugout at the same time, "I think everybody took a deep breath," Fowler said. "You never know how it's going to start, but once that dude gets his momentum, Kershaw, he keeps it going. We tried to take that out."

There were many ways to count how the Cubs did just that. Here are some of them:

• As noted by ESPN's Jayson Stark, Kershaw had not allowed more than one run in a first inning since June 27, 2015 -- 44 starts earlier, including his starts in the postseason.

• Fowler's double in the first inning and 's double leading off the second gave the Cubs as many extra-base hits in one-plus inning as Kershaw surrendered in his first 19 1/3 innings this postseason.

• In part because of Toles' untimely error -- he said he lost the ball in the lights after checking for center fielder -- Kershaw needed 30 pitches to navigate the first inning. He got through the first three innings of Game 2 on 31 pitches.

• The Cubs took one at-bat with runners in scoring position in nine innings against Kershaw and in Game 2. They had eight such at-bats through the first three innings of Game 6.

• Kershaw could not throw a curveball for a strike, an occasional problem, Honeycutt said, since the lefty returned from his back injury. He threw 15 curveballs among his 93 pitches, and the Cubs didn't swing at any of them. Only one was a strike, a curve to Bryant in the fifth. It was Kershaw's 12th curveball of the night.

"They could basically eliminate that pitch, so I had two pitches, and just the command wasn't quite as good as it was the other day," Kershaw said. "You get out of that first inning, give up two, and you feel you've got a chance. They just kept tacking on runs."

For Kershaw, it was a tough end to a tough season. When he pitched, he was terrific as usual; 12-4 with a 1.69 ERA and a .184/.204/.268 opposing slash line in 21 starts. But he missed 2 1/2 months with a back injury before returning Sept. 9 and gutting through the remainder of the season in a somewhat compromised state.

That did not show in Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Nationals, when Kershaw recorded a two-out save, two days after throwing 110 pitches in a start. Or in Game 2 of the NLCS three days later.

Saturday marked the first time in Kershaw's five appearances in the 2016 postseason that the Dodgers lost.

"To me, what he did -- he could have easily not been here right now with his back," Jansen said. "How he sacrificed himself and worked hard, knowing that's not 100 percent 'Kersh,' he still battled. I'm proud seeing him out there. Today wasn't his day, but he battled. He battled all the way through."

Did the workload catch up to Kershaw?

"Who can say? Everybody [with hindsight] can say whatever," Honeycutt said. "The fact of the matter is, he's our best."

Kershaw, for the record, said he felt strong. With rest, he will spend the offseason getting stronger.

"Obviously, you're upset tonight," Kershaw said. "The end goal is to win the World Series. [But manager Dave Roberts] reiterated not to hang heads, that this was a season we can be proud of. Without reaching our goal, there were a lot of things we can be proud of."