Dave McCullough presents our NLCS Game 1 recap between the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers, in which the Clayton Kershaw show rolls on.
As few as five days ago, you could find people calling the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw a “playoff choker.” The National League’s likely Cy Young winner has answered his critics rather definitively this week: shut up, and enjoy the show. The 2014 NL MVP and Cy Young winner entered this postseason with unimpressive career playoff stats: 2-6 record, 4.59 ERA (64 ⅔ & 33 ER), and no World Series appearances. But the notion that Kershaw cannot be the same devastating and dominant pitcher in the playoffs that he is in the regular season is ludacris after what he has done in this postseason.
In Game 1 of the NLDS, he notched a win, but it was five labored innings in which the ace allowed eight hits and three earned runs while walking two (TWO!), and striking out just seven. Those two walks were 1/5th of the walks he allowed during the entire regular season – he issued only 11 unintentional passes in 149 innings. However, he was still “working back into shape” after missing 71 days with a back injury.
He then took the ball again – on three days rest – in Game 4, with the Dodgers facing elimination and went 6 ⅔ with 11 Ks. But he also allowed five runs on seven hits and another two (scandalous) free passes. However, not all “earned runs” are created equal:
When Clayton Kershaw has been pulled from playoff games, he's left a total of 14 men on base. His bullpen has allowed 9 of those 14 to score
— August Fagerstrom (@AugustFG_) October 12, 2016
Kershaw left Game 4 with the bases loaded. They were loaded, in part, because Dodgers manager “pulled a Grady Little” and left his ace out there past his (obvious) expiration date. Coming off a season shortened by injury, on three days rest, having thrown more than 100 pitches (he finished with 110) – Kershaw still left the game with a lead. But those runners scored, and he was tagged with a no-decision in a game the Dodgers won.
Then, in Game 5 – once again facing elimination – Kershaw came on in relief to save the game, and series, with ⅔ of an inning and a strikeout of key, clutch, non-choker relief. He pitched a total of 12 ⅓ innings in the 2016 NLDS, struck out 19 batters, and contributed to all three games LA won.
Three days later, Kershaw started Game 2 of the NLCS against the #1 seed and best regular season team in MLB, the Chicago Cubs. Notably, he cut down on the walks – issuing just one free pass to Anthony Rizzo in the top of the seventh.
He also yielded just two hits – back-to-back singles to Javier Baez and Willson Contreras in the bottom of the fifth inning to spoil the no-hit bid – and no runs in seven dominant innings. He shut down the NL’s best scoring offense (808 runs), and the likely NL MVP (Kris Bryant), with ease.
Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers closer, backed him up with a six-out save, and the Dodgers won Game 2, 1-0. An Adrian Gonzalez home run in the top of the second inning was the difference. Kyle Hendricks – also a NL Cy Young candidate – nearly matched Kershaw. The Cubs hurler went 5 ⅓, scattering four hits and three walks, yielding just the blast by the Dodgers first baseman. Relievers Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery, Pedro Strop, and Aroldis Chapman also had perfect evenings on the mound.
Game 2 of the NLCS was a gem, a pitcher’s duel for the ages. The Cubs pitchers were excellent and made only one (fatal) mistake. But Kershaw was better. He has now thrown 19 ⅓ playoff innings this season, and has been involved meaningfully in every Dodgers win. He has, again, saved the Dodgers season. Going home tied 1-1 in the NLCS is much, much different than going home in a hole, down two games to none. Kershaw did exactly what an ace is expected to do in the postseason, and has buried the notion he is a “choker.” Hogwash. He is the best pitcher on the planet and he is (literally) the only reason the Dodgers win games in the playoffs.