DENVER -- Clayton Kershaw is one of the most decorated pitchers in baseball history. Despite being limited by injury over the past few seasons, he is a three-time National League Cy Young Award winner, a former league MVP and a five-time ERA champion. He was, for a long stretch of time, the best pitcher on the planet, and he’s a lock for the Hall of Fame.
Although he’s had to reinvent himself in some ways as he’s aged and as injuries have nagged him in recent years, it began to seem as if we took for granted that Kershaw has continued to be dominant, if not as dominant as he was at the height of his powers.
But then come days like Tuesday, when the Dodgers lost to the Rockies, 7-4, their fourth defeat at the hands of Colorado in five games this season. It’s times like these when we’re reminded that even the greatest are not always great. It’s those moments in which we learn to appreciate greatness the most -- when it’s not there like it always seems to be.
“I’m not going to overthink it,” Kershaw said. “I just sucked today. … I haven’t been that bad in a long time.”
A little more than five years, to be exact. Kershaw gave up six runs on nine hits, walking four and striking out four over four innings Tuesday night at Coors Field, marking the first time he had surrendered six or more earned runs in a start since June 19, 2017, against the Mets.
Kershaw was battling his command and feel for his pitches from the very outset. With the Dodgers’ lineup continuing to underperform after being shut out on three hits in Monday’s series opener, a subpar Kershaw was especially bad news on this night. Outside of solo home runs from Hanser Alberto, Max Muncy and Trea Turner, Los Angeles’ offense could muster little production at the mile-high hitter’s haven that is Coors Field.
“He just didn’t have his pitch mix tonight,” manager Dave Roberts said. “It was an off night. It’s bound to happen at some point.”
It’s bound to happen to everyone, even Kershaw -- who entered the start with an ERA of 2.00 over eight starts this season, including a 2.40 ERA in three starts since coming off the injured list due to a lower back injury. He threw 77 pitches on Tuesday, and while his curveball was effective -- he got whiffs on six of nine swings against the pitch -- he labored with his slider and fastball.
The damage was done against those last two staples of Kershaw’s repertoire, and often early in the count. Charlie Blackmon jumped on the first pitch he saw in the first inning after leadoff man Connor Joe drew a walk, a 92 mph fastball for a single to right field. Joe would eventually come around to score Colorado’s first run.
In the second, Randal Grichuk smashed a hanging 3-2 slider off the foul pole in left. Later in that frame, Blackmon again ambushed Kershaw on a first-pitch fastball for an RBI single. In the third, Elias Díaz crushed a first-pitch 90 mph fastball middle-in, depositing it a projected 445 feet onto the concourse behind the left-field seats.
As is always the case when any pitcher struggles in the altitude of Denver, the question arose: Was it Coors?
“I don’t think I would’ve pitched well anywhere today,” Kershaw said. “I just wasn’t very good all the way around. I don’t really think about Coors Field, I just try to think about it like any other day.”
Coors hasn’t been kind to Kershaw -- he entered Tuesday’s start, his 25th at the venue, with a 4.57 career ERA there. He’s had his moments, though, most recently a seven-inning performance on Sept. 19, 2020, when he gave up just one run on four hits while walking none and striking out six in a 6-1 victory.
When it was all said and done Tuesday, Kershaw spoke like a man who is at a point in his career in which he can reflect on clunkers with a different perspective than in his younger days.
“It was good,” he said. “You check where you’re at and remember that this game’s not easy.”
Kershaw was even a bit jocular when answering questions about his tough night. In response to a question about why he thought he had such a difficult time, he smiled and said “lack of skill.”
A pitcher who goes 106 starts between giving up six earned runs in an outing isn’t lacking in skill. But as we saw Tuesday, even the great ones aren’t always great.
“Thankfully,” Kershaw said, “they’ll let me go out there again in five days.”