Kershaw beats the devil

Clayton Kershaw comes through when the Dodgers need him the most

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In my years as a baseball writer, I’ve seen a perfect game in Japan, I’ve seen a man fall off first base as if he was cow-tipped, I’ve seen a World Series canceled, an All-Star Game tied and games rained out on sunny days. But I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite as weird and surprising as Clayton Kershaw last year against the St. Louis Cardinals.

You will remember: The game was going along more or less as expected. For the first six innings, Kershaw was not exactly his usual dominant self — he gave up two solo home runs — but he he was plenty good. Those two homers were the only two hits he had allowed. He had struck out eight in six innings and hadn’t walked anyone. His Dodgers led, 6-2, and the victory seemed certain.

And then, well, I still can’t tell you exactly what happened. We’ve all seen pitchers lose their stuff. We’ve all seen even great pitchers get knocked around a bit. This wasn’t either of those things. This was like an explosion of some kind. The Cardinals for ten minutes or so just started CRUSHING Kershaw’s pitchers. It was like he’d been replaced by DirecTV’s “And I’m Batting Practice Clayton Kershaw.” Matt Holliday ripped a single. Jhonny Peralta ripped a single. Yadier Molina singled, Matt Adams singled, John Jay singled, Matt Carpenter doubled, it was absolute mayhem out there, each ball hit harder than the one before, and when Kershaw was taken out of the game there was shocked silence at Dodger Stadium.

There were countless theories about the Kershaw Kollapse — He was tipping his pitches! He stopped throwing his breaking ball! He lost his location! — but the bottom line is that you can never unsee that. In a huge game, the greatest pitcher of his generation utterly fell apart in front of our eyes, and there’s no way you can view him exactly the same after that.

Then, next time out in the playoffs, it basically happened again, The second time was not quite as dramatic — sequels almost never are — but the theme was the same. For six innings, Kershaw dominated. He gave up one hit and struck out nine. Then, start of the seventh, the carriage turned into a pumpkin, and he gave up singles to Holliday and Peralta and a home run to Adams before he was replaced.

So, so weird. This year, for the first time in five years, Clayton Kershaw did not lead the National League in ERA, but he had career bests in innings and shutouts, and he became the first pitcher in more than a decade to strike out 300 batters in a season. In other words, he was as fantastic as ever. Game 1 of this playoff series against the Mets, everyone was watching closely.

For six innings, yep, he was typical three-time Cy Young Kershaw — four hits, 11 strikeouts, one mistake pitch that Daniel Murphy hit out. But we knew that. What about the seventh? He came out and inexplicably just lost his control. He walked three Mets hitters. He was then pulled out of the game and Pedro Baez came in to give up a two-run single to David Wright.

Here’s the thing about postseason baseball: Everything is of a small sample size. There aren’t enough October games played for things to even out. Ted Williams hit .200 in the World Series. Does this mean he was a choker? Of course not: He only got 25 World Series at-bats, and over 25 at-bats Ted Williams can hit .200 and Mario Mendoza can hit .400 (like he did from May 24-June 4, 1980) and Frank Howard can hit 10 home runs (May 11-18, 1968). Over such a short span, journeymen can do the extraordinary and legends can crumble. That’s why when talking about a players’ caliber and character, we judge them over long seasons and long careers.

But that’s NOT how we judge postseason baseball. There is no time to wait for things to normalize. You get that brief time on the big stage, under the bright lights, and what you do up there is what you do up there. David Eckstein or Donn Clendenon or Mickey Hatcher can be the hero. Mike Schmidt or Gil Hodges or Dennis Eckersley can be the goat.

Clayton Kershaw is one of the greatest pitchers I’ve ever seen. But, there is no way to deny that in the playoffs, come the seventh inning, he had fallen apart three starts in a row. And for October baseball, that is not just a trend. It is a curse.

So, yes, absolutely I was one of millions watching the seventh inning closely Tuesday when the Dodgers played for their postseason lives against the Mets in New York. Kershaw fully understood just how much was on the line. He was going on three-days rest, and he was spotted in the outfield before the game, alone, clearly trying to work through whatever it is that has hindered him in these moments. In the dugout as the game started, he was a wild man — stomping around, high-fiving and chest-bumping his teammates, looking a bit like a professional wrestler before a “loser leaves town” match.

And for six innings, sure, he was great. Well, of course he was. He allowed two hits, again made one mistake pitch (which Daniel Murphy AGAIN hit for a home run), struck out eight, seemed in control. But then he came out for the seventh and, yes, everyone sensed the moment. The Mets trailed just 3-1, they had the power of their order coming up, the New York fans were wailing.

Yoenis Cespedes led off, Kershaw challenged him with a hard fastball on the outside part of the plate, he swung viciously (Cespedes has only one swing mode, and that’s “vicious swing mode”) and fouled it off. Then Cespedes dribbled one just down the third-base line. Kershaw jumped off the mound and raced to the ball like he was Rocky Balboa chasing the chicken. But he couldn’t scoop it up. Cespedes had a single. And Kershaw would admit later that he was sweating a bit after that.

He managed to get Travis d’Arnaud to foul out on a 95-mph fastball, but honestly it again seemed like something odd was happening to Kershaw’s pitches. When he’s right — as he is 95 percent of the time — his pitches repel wood. Hitters swing and miss all the time. Kershaw had the highest swing and miss rate in baseball this year (15.9 percent). He had the highest rate last year too. But in this seventh inning, he would not get even one swing and miss.

Instead, Lucas Duda would follow D’Arnaud, swing at the first pitch, and mash an imperfect slider to center field. It looked dangerous off the bat, though it would turn out to be a relatively routine deep fly ball in Citi Field. Two outs.

Then came Wilmer Flores, who had struck out twice already against Kershaw. But this time Kershaw fell behind 2-0, and then he threw a slider that Flores smashed toward toward third. Justin Turner is not widely viewed as a great third baseman, but like a good hockey goalie he somehow gloved the puck. Then he got up and threw out Flores. A quirky single and two-hard hit balls. But the inning was over.

And that was that. Kershaw had somehow gotten through. The Mets threatened briefly against the Dodgers’ relievers, but they could not break through and now the series goes back to Los Angeles for the decisive game. Kershaw was the hero. When the game ended, he looked like a man who had found out something about himself. “Glad I did it,” he would tell reporters afterward. “I mean, there’s no curse or anything.”

And he said it like he believed it, which really is the most important thing when it comes to curses.