ST. LOUIS — His year began by signing the most lucrative contract for a pitcher in baseball history. During the season, he threw the first no-hitter in history with 15 strikeouts and no walks and became the first pitcher ever to lead the majors in ERA for four straight years. He might even become the first National League pitcher since Bob Gibson in 1968 to win the Cy Young and MVP Awards in the same season.
None of it matters tonight. Clayton Kershaw has to do something he has never done before: win a game with his team’s season on the line. He will start tonight on short rest in NLDS Game 4 with the Dodgers facing elimination against the Cardinals. Kershaw has pitched twice before in elimination games, once in relief (2009 NLCS Game 5) and once as a starter (2013 NLCS Game 6). He has allowed nine earned runs in six innings (13.50 ERA) in those games.
The best pitcher in baseball must outpitch Shelby Miller, who will be making his first postseason start for St. Louis, and with the way Los Angeles' bullpen has torched this series, he must go deep into the game. In seven career playoff starts Kershaw has never seen the eighth inning. He has finished seven innings just once. His team is 3-4 in those starts.
In 10 postseason games overall, Kershaw is 1-4 with a 5.20 ERA. It is the glaring hole in his otherwise glorious resume.
There have been 121 pitchers who made seven or more starts in the postseason. Only seven of them, including Kershaw, have posted an ERA greater than 5.00 while failing to win more than one of them. The other six: Andy Benes, Ed Figueroa, Scott Kazmir, Rick Reed, Rick Reuschel, and C.J. Wilson – not the kind of illustrious company you expect from a man who in the regular season invokes comparisons to Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez and other pitching royalty.
When you compare the October version of Kershaw to his fellow Cy Young Award winners, he fails miserably. He owns the worst ERA among all Cy winners who started at least seven postseason games. Here are the Cy Young winners with the highest postseason ERAs. Kershaw is the only one on the list to have won the award twice, and he is a good bet to win his third this year:
On the one hand, the Dodgers have to feel as comfortable about winning a five-game series as any team that’s been down two games to one. They have Kershaw for Game 4 and fellow former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke lined up for Game 5. The Dodgers won 71 percent of the starts by those two this year. If Kershaw can get the series back to Dodger Stadium, Greinke has the best winning percentage there of any pitcher who has made 30 starts (.826, 19-4).
On the other hand, Kershaw must pitch deep and well on short rest. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly did use him on short rest in NLDS Game 4 last year, but he pulled him quickly from the game over concerns about pushing him too hard. The game was tied after six innings – and Kershaw had thrown only 91 pitches – when Mattingly replaced him with Ronald Bellasario to start the seventh. Both Mattingly and catcher A.J. Ellis agreed that Kershaw was maintaining the quality of his stuff, but Mattingly took him out of the game out of caution more than an evaluation of his pitching at the time.
Mattingly explained after that game, “So we talked about it, we thought about it, and it was just we’ve got to pull the trigger on this. We can’t allow him to go any further. He did his job.”
Remember, Los Angeles was leading the Braves in that series, two games to one. Can Mattingly afford to be so cautious with his team facing elimination and no good options in his bullpen to get to closer Kenley Jansen?
Kershaw threw 110 pitches in his Game 1 loss last Friday. He cruised through six innings without throwing a pitch from the stretch. But the Cardinals tagged him for six hits in the seventh, with all of those runners coming around to score. What happened? It was simple: The man they call Big Train forgot about throwing his curveball and tried to power-pitch his way out of trouble. And the harder he tried, the more he missed location and left fastballs over the meat of the plate.
“I’m afraid I was right on board with that Train,” said catcher A.J. Ellis, who second-guessed himself for days over the pitch selection when Kershaw was in trouble.
Now Kershaw gets another chance. The only postseason game he ever won was a Division Series opener, last year against Atlanta. Tonight is the biggest start of his career. The mission is simple: Tonight he must pitch like the best pitcher in baseball.
2. Bridge work needed
Apparently $239 million doesn’t go as far as it used to. The Dodgers, major league baseball’s most expensive team, have no reliable pitcher to bridge the gap between the starting pitcher and closer Kenley Jansen. In three NLDS games, Mattingly chose a different reliever each time as the first one out of his bullpen in a close contest. All three times the reliever du jour a) failed to retire the first batter; and b) gave up a home run two or three batters into his appearance.
Just look at whom Mattingly brought into these postseason games as first options:
Pedro Baez: A 26-year-old rookie who had thrown only 24 major league innings and had entered either a tie game or a one-run game only three times. Mattingly brought him into Game 1 down 7-6 in the seventh. Two batters later (walk, home run), it was 10-6.
J.P. Howell: A 30-year-old lefty who had allowed seven runs on eight hits – and an .882 slugging percentage -- in his final three innings of the regular season. Mattingly brought him into Game 2 up 2-0 in the eighth. Two batters later (single, home run), it was 2-2.
Scott Elbert: A 29-year-old lefty who had thrown only 24 1/3 innings this season, who had undergone three elbow surgeries in the past two years, who went unclaimed when the Dodgers cut him in July and who was returned to the major league roster as recently as mid-September. Mattingly brought him into Game 3 in a 1-1 tie in the seventh. Three batters later (double, sacrifice, home run) it was 3-1.
My goodness, what does this say about Brian Wilson, Brandon League and Chris Perez (who is not even on the roster), the veteran relievers who combined are making $20.8 million? The Detroit Tigers can feel L.A.'s pain. Hard-throwing relievers seem to be falling off assembly lines all over the rest of baseball – for examples, the Pirates found John Holdzcom in independent ball and Brian Matusz couldn’t even make the Orioles’ postseason roster. But neither the Tigers, who were swept out of the playoffs, or Dodgers have found the right pieces to hold a game in the late innings.
3. Lackey not lacking for postseason success
John Lackey fought arm fatigue late in the season and is two weeks away from turning 36. Yet there he was in NLDS Game 3 on Monday night doing what he does best: riding emotion and adrenaline to yet another turn-back-the-clock postseason performance. With his attacking style and fastball/slider combination, he is built for the postseason. He has been given the ball too many times in too many postseason games to think his October success is simply the residue of luck.
His seven strong innings for St. Louis in Game 3, in which he allowed one run, lowered his career postseason ERA to 2.92 – more than a full run better than his regular season ERA (4.03). It was his 20th postseason game, including 17 starts. He has thrown more postseason innings than any active pitcher.
Why does Lackey keep pitching well in October? It has to do with more than just his ferocity on the mound. He has such pinpoint control with his fastball and slider that he almost never gives up a home run. Think of how many games already this postseason that have turned on one swing of the bat (by Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Brandon Belt, Matt Holliday, Matt Kemp, Kolten Wong, etc.). Now think about this: Lackey has allowed only four home runs in 111 postseason innings, including none in his past 60 2/3 innings, covering 254 consecutive batters and 851 pitches. That’s a lot of sliders without hanging one.
Already the only man to win World Series clinchers for two teams (2002 Angels and 2013 Red Sox), Lackey has put himself into the discussion regarding the best postseason starters of his generation. He has the seventh lowest ERA in postseason starts among all pitchers who have made at least 15 starts: