LOS ANGELES — Rick Honeycutt has seen every pitch in the career of Clayton Kershaw, so when the Los Angeles Dodgers lefthander showed up for his bullpen session at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday, Honeycutt knew something was wrong.
“You all right?” the Dodgers pitching coach asked Kershaw.
Only the day before, Honeycutt and manager Dave Roberts had stunned Kershaw by telling him he was not getting the ball for Game 1 of the National League Division Series against Atlanta. Over the past eight years, Kershaw had been available to start the first game of the season and the first game of a postseason series 16 times. And the Dodgers had handed him the ball 16 times.
“I’m hurt,” Kershaw replied.
He let the admission hang in the air long enough for the point to carry all of its weight. And a beat later he added, “But I’ll be over it. I’ll be fine.”
And then Kershaw attacked a full bullpen session–one peppered with vigor and purpose. Had Kershaw started Game 1, he would have thrown a modified bullpen Monday. The reason Roberts pushed Kershaw to Game 2 was to put both he and Hyun-Jin Ryu on five days rest, a season-long preference that would still leave Kershaw available to start a potential Game 5 on four days rest.
“The one thing I don’t think he gets enough credit for is the way he prepares for a game,” Honeycutt said. “The effort and the homework are always with an extra sense of purpose.”
Kershaw brought an even more elevated sense of purpose to his Game 2 start. His pride was hurt. This was like Sinatra being assigned the warmup act at the Hollywood Bowl.
Sufficiently motivated from within, Kershaw went out to the Dodger Stadium mound on a theatrical Friday night, when the sunset-splashed sky behind him glowed pastel orange as if by stage lighting, and put on a virtuoso concert. He threw eight innings for the first time in his 20 career postseason starts, allowed no runs, no walks and two hits.
Here’s the kicker: he struck out only three batters. It marked only the fourth time in his 336 career starts that Kershaw won a game with so few strikeouts.
Kershaw threw 85 pitches, none of which cracked 93 mph. He hasn’t cracked 93 mph–the average big league fastball–in his past dozen starts. He hasn’t thrown a pitch 94 mph the entire year.
No, this was an acoustic concert, not the percussive fastball-popping performances of years gone by. Kershaw moved the ball around the edges of the plate with precise fastballs and sliders. And his old friend, the curveball, dubbed by the great Vin Scully as Public Enemy No. 1, made people gasp at its parabolic wonder.
“That,” Honeycutt said, “was as good as I’ve seen his curveball in at least the last few games. I mean, I think he didn’t throw it for a strike maybe once or twice.”
Kershaw threw 14 curveballs. Twelve were strikes. The Braves tried to hit eight of them and failed every time. They put one of them in play for an out.
It was his first curveball that his catcher, Yasmani Grandal, would call “the biggest pitch of the night.”
Just minutes before the game, Atlanta bench coach Walt Weiss told me, “We’ve got to get to Kershaw early. Tony [LaRussa] told me a long time ago that you have to jump on great pitchers early. They’re most vulnerable in the first inning. That’s when they’re still trying to find their rhythm and how their pitches are working. If you don’t get them early, you’re not going to get them, because then they settle in.”
The Braves immediately set themselves up to jump on Kershaw when Ronald Acuña Jr. smashed the first pitch, a fastball down the middle, for a double. They had Johan Camargo, Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis to follow. Yet Kershaw never allowed the ball out of the infield or the run to score. Groundouts by Camargo and Freeman brought up Markakis.
“I didn’t like the way he was swinging at his velocity,” Grandal said. “I figured I had to go someplace else because he seemed to be on it.”
He called for a curveball. Kershaw had thrown 13 pitches, but not one curveball yet. He nodded at Grandal’s idea, and flipped in the most perfect curveball you could imagine, as if tracing an arc across the air with your finger. Markakis took it. It hit the outer edge of the plate. Umpire Lance Barksdale called strike three. And Kershaw bounced off the mound with a primal scream in both celebration and relief.
“Perfect,” Grandal said. “Usually his curveball goes down. But this one broke away. I think it was a strike. I’m going to go in and look at the video right now to see.”
In his first season pitching at 30 years old, Kershaw has entered another realm in his career. His fastball usage has declined from 54% in 2015, to 51% in 2016, to 47% in 2017 and to 41% this year, the second lowest in the league, behind only Zack Godley of Arizona.
The slider is his go-to pitch now. Last year on full counts Kershaw would throw a fastball 51% of the time. But in those moment-of-truth counts this year, Kershaw goes to the slider 66% of the time. He can’t blow the ball by a hitter now, so he moves it off the barrel slightly with short and late movement.
What Kershaw still does as well as any pitcher is repeat his delivery, which allows him to put the baseball where he wants it most of them time. So precise was Kershaw last night that he threw only 22 balls to the 26 batters he faced.
This is where it must be pointed out that the Braves are a young, aggressive-swinging team that is in a two-week slump. You throw precision pitching against this team, as the Dodgers have done with Ryu and Kershaw, and the results are predictable. After two games Atlanta does not have a run or a walk.
On Sunday, the Braves get to see the best pure stuff on the Los Angeles pitching staff: from Walker Buehler. They could be out of the postseason before they know what hit them. On the plus side, they have showcased several of their young, impressive power arms: Sean Newcomb, Max Fried, Chad Sobotka, Touki Toussaint, etc. Only the Rays can match their depth of power arms on the brink of breakthroughs. You watch these guys follow each other to the mound and think the Braves had better get Manny Machado or Bryce Harper on the free agent market to maximum this window that is just opening.
The Dodgers’ resources have allowed Kershaw’s entire 11-year career to be a World Series window–still open and still unfulfilled. He has pitched for 10 winning teams in those 11 years, including eight playoff teams. With Kershaw, the Dodgers have never won the last game of the year, coming closest last year, when they lost World Series Game 7 at home to Houston.
Kershaw could leave the Dodgers after this postseason if he chooses. He can walk away from the two years and $65 million left on his contract, if he wants to leverage the option for a bigger guaranteed deal. With three seasons truncated by injuries, he knows his leverage is dissipating. Nights like this, with Sandy Koufax among those standing and applauding him, it’s hard to imagine Kershaw in another uniform.
It was a good night to understand the magic of baseball. Such magic is best seen in the eyes of a 12-year-old, before the world goes darker and grittier and when dreams still buoy the soul. Friday night if you weren’t moved by the hopping joy of the 12-year-old who caught a home run ball by Machado in the leftfield pavilion you had better see a cardiologist quickly. It was the boy’s birthday, no less. Twenty minutes after the game he was waiting outside the Dodgers clubhouse with his family and the baseball. When Machado came striding out to meet him, still wearing his game pants and baseball undershirt, the boy could not stop smiling.
“I play shortstop, too!” he told Machado.
“I’m surprised you caught that,” Machado told him. “I hit that hard.”
Machado signed his baseball, apologizing for having the boy spell out his name, Donovan, more than once.
“It’s been a long day,” Machado said. “I’m sorry.”
Then they posed for pictures, preserving some of that magic to last forever.
But you can also find the magic of baseball in how it keeps us young. There was no better example of such power Friday night than Kershaw. He is a pitcher in transition, the velocity of his younger days gone for good, and probably also his default title of number one starter.
As a Game 2 starter, and without a mid-90s fastball in his pocket, Kershaw found another source of strength on which to draw. He summoned from his enormous pride, the same pride that had been hurt by not getting the ball in Game 1. And, as he promised Honeycutt, he was fine–as fine as he’s ever been in October.