Clayton Kershaw seeks elusive postseason success for Dodgers
LOS ANGELES (AP) No one epitomizes the Los Angeles Dodgers’ recent playoff failures more than Clayton Kershaw. As brilliant as he’s been in his career – winning last year’s NL MVP and three Cy Young Awards – the ace has yet to achieve success in the postseason.
For someone as deceptively competitive as Kershaw, that kind of collapse is unacceptable.
He’ll get a chance for the third year in a row to put his defeats behind him when he takes the ball Friday for Game 1 of the NL Division Series against the New York Mets.
At least the Dodgers are starting with an opponent other than the St. Louis Cardinals, who bounced them out the last two years – both times with Kershaw on the mound.
In the left-hander’s last four playoff starts, all against the Cardinals, he is 0-4 with a 7.15 ERA.
By comparison, Kershaw had a 2.13 ERA in the regular season. He had a rough first half when he struggled with his slider, a big reason for his success. It became a hittable pitch until he began locating it where he wanted more often, helping him close strongly after the All-Star break.
He enters the playoffs with an 11-1 record and 1.22 ERA to go with four complete games, including three shutouts, in his final 17 starts since July 3.
”It’s pure dominance,” catcher A.J. Ellis said. ”Very reminiscent and maybe even better than his MVP season.”
Consistency is something Kershaw thrives on. He was frustrated last year when he couldn’t pitch a complete season after spending over a month on the disabled list for the first time in his career. This season, he started 33 games and pitched 232 2/3 innings, finishing with a 16-7 record.
”If there is something to take pride in individually, that’s what I would take pride in,” he said.
With four days off to prepare for the start of the NLDS, Kershaw is sticking to his strict routine. He’s the guy running from foul pole to foul pole in the outfield and hitting the weight room. He threw a bullpen session Tuesday.
”He does such a great job of living in that five-day window, where he doesn’t get too far ahead of himself and he doesn’t live in the past at all,” said Ellis, who as the backup still catches Kershaw.
Kershaw is spare with his words, yet he’s observant of veteran pitchers who’ve been his teammates over the years, studying the work habits of Greg Maddux, Derek Lowe, Ted Lilly and Randy Wolf.
He’s forged a special relationship with reclusive Dodgers great Sandy Koufax, who was the last LA pitcher to reach 300 strikeouts in 1966 until Kershaw joined him last weekend with his 301st.
In an example of his disciplined approach, if Kershaw hadn’t recorded the six strikeouts he needed to reach 300 within his abbreviated pitch count, he would have left the game.
”Being fresh for the playoffs is more important than 300 strikeouts,” he said.
Kershaw has averaged seven innings per start this season, leading the major leagues in strikeouts for the first time in his career while staying comfortably within 110-115 pitches. His efficiency and sound mechanics could keep the 27-year-old on the mound for years to come.
”There’s a rare combination there,” Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. ”To be that good, not only do you have to have good stuff, but you also have to be mentally tough and driven.”
And on the occasions when he has stumbled, most notably in the playoffs, Kershaw maintains his equilibrium.
”Any game that he doesn’t succeed in, it drives him to succeed even more,” Honeycutt said.
Ellis sees no change in Kershaw’s mentality or approach from year to year.
”He responds the same when he loses a game in June than when he loses a game in the playoffs,” the catcher said.
The Dodgers boast baseball’s costliest roster, led by the major-league strikeout leader (Kershaw) and ERA leader (Zack Greinke), in their bid to win the World Series for the first time since 1988.
”Somebody calls it a lottery when you get into the playoffs,” Ellis said, ”but I think we’re going into it with a little bit more pingpong balls than everybody else having those two guys.”