My 2014 Sportsman nominee: Clayton Kershaw
This essay is one of more than 20 nominations for SI's 2014 Sportsman of the Year. You can see all of this year's nominees here.
There is no way around this part: Clayton Kershaw pitched two baseball games in October. He lost both. He didn’t survive the sixth inning of either. Once, he relied too heavily on his fastball, and then, too heavily on his curve. He had no bullpen behind him, and he worked the finale on three day’s rest, but all the alibis are empty. He coughed up a combined 11 runs and his Dodgers, with a payroll approaching a quarter-of-a-billion dollars, fell in the first round of the National League Division Series. Since October is the most important month on the baseball calendar -- some might say the only important month on the baseball calendar -- he may be precluded from consideration for Sportsman of the Year.
But I am nominating Kershaw, anyway, because he pitched 27 games before the final two. And while those 27 did not carry the same weight, or reach the same audience, they were as dazzling as the last two were demoralizing. He went 11 weeks without losing a game. He went 41 innings without allowing a run. He threw a no-hitter on 15 strikeouts without a walk. He was as automatic as the national anthem and the seventh-inning stretch. He won the ERA title, of course, but that’s been the case four years in a row. He’s the only pitcher since the dead-ball era besides Greg Maddux to post consecutive ERAs under 1.85. No team so much as loaded the bases against him until his 22nd outing. No left-handed hitter drove in a run against him until his 23rd.
These things actually happened this summer, but they were all forgotten in two autumn evenings, reduced to mere context as the Cardinals battered him from the NLDS. The meltdown was startling only because it followed such a historic jag of dominance. Just as you can’t excuse the gruesome end, you also can’t ignore the brilliant beginning and middle. Kershaw signed a $215 million contract last winter, and instead of resting on his riches, he was even more driven than he’d been. He averaged the fewest pitches per inning in the majors, which enabled him to work eight innings or more on 15 occasions, and spare that beleaguered pen. He made a diving catch to help save a game, dashed from first to third to help win a game, and tried to leg out an infield single in the eighth inning of his no-hitter. He cinched the Cy Young by mid-August but he also defined the MVP. Meanwhile, his foundation that already built an orphanage in Zambia tackled four new projects, two in Zambia, one in Dallas, one in L.A.
Now, those who only watch baseball in October will call him the ace who can’t win the big one. I watch all season, which is why I’ll call him Sportsman of the Year.