The Los Angeles Dodgers have the best pitcher in Major League Baseball. Outside of him, their staff is struggling. They must ride Clayton Kershaw through the postseason.
When Clayton Kershaw went down with a relatively serious injury in early July, the Los Angeles Dodgers were proclaimed dead. They were well behind the Giants in the division and had just lost their most valuable player, who was having one of the best pitching starts to a season of all time. With an offense that hadn’t broken out and pitching staff held together by tacky glue, the Dodgers were finished. That’s when they went on a ridiculous run and took first place from the struggling Giants, whose bullpen had completely imploded in the second half of the season.
Kershaw was able to return from injury before the end of the regular season, but he made just five starts before the postseason began. Naturally, fans were concerned about how a possible lingering injury would affect Kershaw in the playoffs. The same Kershaw who has been labeled as a playoff failure despite clearly being the best pitcher in all of baseball over the last five years (at least). It seemed like yet another recipe for disaster. And yet, Kershaw was able to get a win in game 1 despite having a couple of rough innings. He gave up just three earned runs while only lasting 5 innings.
On short rest, Kershaw was given the ball in game 4 with the season on the line. He performed in typical Kershaw fashion, but was left in just slightly too long. He went 6.2 innings giving up just two earned runs, but left the bases loaded with two outs in the 7th when he was removed. Pedro Baez and Luis Avilan then allowed all three Kershaw baserunners to score before getting the final out of the inning. On paper, it seemed like Kershaw was once again a disappearing act in the playoffs.
Just two days later in game 5, Kershaw made a surprise appearance to get two outs in the bottom of the 9th. He made quick work of Daniel Murphy, getting him to pop out and then made poor Wilmer Difo look like a fool on a curveball to end the game. It was Bumgarner, Johnson, and Buehrle -esque. It was the type of postseason performance we see only from the greatest pitchers in the biggest moments.
Kershaw’s appearance in game 5 might have been the only thing that saved the Dodgers’ season, but it put them in a difficult position for the NLCS. With Kenta Maeda clearly starting game 1, the attention was turned to who the Dodgers would put out in game 2, which could be a crucial game for the series. Rich Hill, Julio Urias, and Clayton Kershaw all pitched during game 5. Outside of those three pitchers, the only pitchers apart from Maeda that have even been considered for a start in the playoffs on the Dodger roster were Ross Stripling and Alex Wood. Those aren’t exactly ideal options for a crucial game 2 in Chicago.
With Stripling and Wood the best two options outside of a slightly under-rested Clayton Kershaw, the team’s “new closer” was really the only option for the Dodgers. Yesterday they announced that he would in fact be starting game 2. Many will argue that pushing Kershaw’s limits like this in the playoffs will hurt the Dodgers more than help them. However, it’s clear that as Kershaw goes, the Dodgers go too.
Corey Seager following game 5 said that as soon as Kershaw entered the game, he knew it was over. That’s how much confidence the team has in Clayton Kershaw. Playoff reputation means absolutely nothing to them, or the Dodgers as a whole in their decision making. Clayton Kershaw is their best pitcher by a wide margin, and the best pitcher in all of Major League Baseball. It’s imperative that they ride him as far as they can. It’s the only way they will be able to compete with the Cubs.
If Clayton Kershaw can win in game 2, and step up whenever he is called up next after that, he may finally change his playoff reputation for the better. Gone will be any memory of the Cardinals or Mets. If the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Cubs, it will be on the shoulders of newly anointed playoff hero Clayton Kershaw.