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Familiar struggles haunt Kershaw in Game 4

@AnthonyDiComo
October 16, 2020

Clayton Kershaw walked briskly, purposefully, to the Dodgers’ dugout to take a seat on the bench. Kershaw had made this walk before. He had taken similar seats in similar ballparks in similar Octobers. He knew what this type of thing entailed. So fully did Kershaw understand his postseason reputation that,

Clayton Kershaw walked briskly, purposefully, to the Dodgers’ dugout to take a seat on the bench. Kershaw had made this walk before. He had taken similar seats in similar ballparks in similar Octobers. He knew what this type of thing entailed.

So fully did Kershaw understand his postseason reputation that, a year earlier, upon allowing the game-tying runs in National League Division Series Game 5 against the Nationals, he acknowledged the truth of “everything people say about the postseason.” Kershaw called the feeling “terrible.”

The truth is that he has sometimes pitched brilliantly in October, sometimes lamentably, but most often somewhere in between. As poorly as Kershaw has performed at various junctures, the Dodgers have absorbed at least some blame for their handling of him. So it was Thursday against the Braves at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, where Kershaw allowed hits to all three batters he faced in the sixth inning to send Los Angeles to a 10-2 loss in NL Championship Series Game 4.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 12 ATL 5, LAD 1 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 13 ATL 8, LAD 7 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 14 LAD 15, ATL 3 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 15 ATL 10, LAD 2 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 16 LAD 7, ATL 3 Watch
Gm 6 Oct. 17 LAD 3, ATL 1 Watch
Gm 7 Oct. 18 LAD 4, ATL 3 Watch

The Dodgers now trail the best-of-seven series, 3-1. It is possible, if not probable, that Kershaw has thrown his final pitch of 2020. If that’s the case, he will have gone another year without erasing the stain of Octobers past.

But the Dodgers have never -- and likely will never -- view him through that prism.

“That narrative,” manager Dave Roberts said, “couldn’t be further from the truth.”

As has increasingly become the norm in recent seasons, the drama leading up to Kershaw’s 35th and latest postseason appearance revolved less around his playoff resume than his health. While throwing a routine bullpen session over the weekend, Kershaw experienced spasms in his back. He did not heal quickly enough to start Game 2 as scheduled, so the Dodgers pushed him to Game 4 instead. They were certain by that point that his back would not be an issue.

And it wasn’t. Early in the night, Kershaw proved healthy and effective, if not entirely perfect. He didn’t pitch a clean inning until the fifth, allowing at least one hit -- including a fourth-inning, game-tying Marcell Ozuna homer on a slider -- in each of the first four. But even Ozuna’s homer did not unravel Kershaw, who had never lost to the Braves in 14 prior meetings.

What did was the sixth.

Entering the inning having recorded five straight outs, his longest run of the night, Kershaw gave up a slow infield bouncer that turned into a single and an error. Freddie Freeman followed with another ground-ball double to bring up Ozuna and give Roberts a decision: stick with Kershaw, who had thrown only 81 pitches, or turn to hard-throwing Brusdar Graterol. For the briefest of moments, Roberts paused, knowing Ozuna had hit the ball hard twice already off Kershaw. But the manager never seriously considered removing his future Hall of Famer from the game.

“I’m not going to take Clayton out after a weak ground ball and another ground ball off the bat of Freeman,” Roberts said. “I felt really good with Clayton at that point in time.”

He felt worse moments later, when Kershaw left a curveball hanging high enough for Ozuna to turn it into a line-drive, RBI double.

“We were ready to make damage,” Ozuna said.

That brought Roberts out of the dugout to replace Kershaw, who walked directly to the dugout and his seat on the bench. Once an inherited run scored to increase Kershaw’s career postseason ERA to 4.31, the latest entry on his file was complete.

Kershaw had allowed at least four runs for the 11th time in a postseason start, matching Greg Maddux for the second-most such outings in Major League history. He had allowed his 27th home run, also the second-most ever. He had pushed his playoff ERA nearly two runs higher than his career regular-season mark -- a discrepancy that, at this point in his career, might never disappear.

But the legacy can still change, perhaps even soon. It remains to be seen if Kershaw and his problematic back might be available to pitch out of the bullpen on short rest later in this series. He’s done that sort of thing before, both successfully and unsuccessfully. He’s done all of this before, successfully and unsuccessfully.

Whether true or not, the postseason narrative continues to follow Kershaw, as vibrant now as it was at the start of Game 4.

Only by pitching well deep into October will Kershaw ever be able to erase it.

Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo, Instagram and Facebook.