Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher in the world, again found himself on the mound with the Dodgers' season in the balance, and this time he just didn't have it. Kershaw's elite arsenal and command deserted him in Los Angeles' season-ending 5-0 loss to the Cubs in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.
On Saturday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs hit Kershaw as hard as any team has all season, taking advantage of his uncharacteristically shaky command to score five times and force their way into the World Series. It was a complete reversal from Game 2 in Chicago, when the Dodgers' ace silenced the Cubs' bats over seven two-hit innings.
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"We have asked a lot of Clayton all year long," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "You've got to give those hitters credit."
From the outset, Kershaw could never get on track, at first thanks to tough luck and bad fielding. Dexter Fowler, the first batter he faced, dropped a soft double inside the right-field line -- just 79.4 mph off the bat, according to Statcast™, with an expected batting average of .065. After Kris Bryant singled Fowler home, Dodgers left fielder Andrew Toles dropped Anthony Rizzo's fly ball, leading to another run.
"Once that dude gets his momentum, Kershaw, he keeps it going," Fowler said. "We tried to take that out."
They did. The Cubs continued to jump on Kershaw, who struggled to locate his pitches. The Cubs barreled four balls -- as many as Kershaw allowed in any start this year, per Statcast™ -- including home runs by Willson Contreras and Rizzo. The Cubs also hit four balls 105-plus mph, the most Kershaw had ever given up in a game above that threshold. Contreras' homer, a 105.5-mph rocket, was the third-hardest homer off Kershaw this season.
"They just kept tacking on runs," Kershaw said. "I gave up some two-out hits and two home runs and two-strike hits -- just a lot of things you can't do in a game like this."
By contrast, Kershaw only allowed one barrel in Game 2, and that turned into a flyout. In Game 6, all four of the Cubs' barrels turned into extra-base hits. Kershaw, in fact, gave up an extra-base hit in all five innings on the mound.
"We know he's the best pitcher in the game," Bryant said. "But he's human. All of us are human."
Kershaw struggled most with his curveball. He threw it for a strike just once in 15 tries, his lowest total of curveball strikes in any start this season. Kershaw didn't even throw his curve until his 27th pitch of the game -- which was still in the first inning.
"They could basically eliminate that pitch," Kershaw said. "So I had two pitches, and the command wasn't as good as it was the other day."
With Kershaw missing frequently and leaving pitches, especially sliders, over the plate, the Cubs attacked. They swung at the first pitch twice as often as in Game 2, for example, indicative of their approach against Kershaw when his stuff wasn't at its sharpest, although their big hits came later in at-bats.
"The Cubs' hitters, they had a great game plan tonight," Roberts said. "They were running counts, they used the whole field, and there was traffic all night for Clayton. And he gave it everything he had. But when he did make a mistake, they made him pay."