Is this the year?: Kershaw poised to kill narrative after Game 2 masterpiece
Clayton Kershaw can't pitch in the playoffs.
That's what they say. They've been saying it for years. Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation, unravels in October, the lone blight on his otherwise immaculate resume. The dissonance defines him as much as his three Cy Young awards.
Of course, the narrative has only a tenuous relationship with the truth. Over the course of his singular, 13-year career with the Los Angeles Dodgers, throughout which the left-hander has rarely found himself not pitching in October, Kershaw has often been brilliant in the postseason. At other times, he's struggled mightily and uncharacteristically. Yet, by virtue of the standard he has set for himself over the years, and tethered as he is to the Dodgers' unrelenting futility, Kershaw endures in the minds of many as a choker, first and foremost.
If his 2020 postseason debut is any indication, though, the 32-year-old looks poised to dispel that reputation.
Kershaw, pitching on five days' rest, turned in a masterpiece Thursday night in Game 2 of his club's wild-card series against the Milwaukee Brewers, propelling the Dodgers to a 3-0 win - and into the National League Division Series - with eight scoreless innings. He struck out 13, setting a new personal postseason record while becoming just the second left-hander in history with 13 strikeouts and no runs allowed in a playoff start. He gave up only three hits - all singles - and one walk. By Game Score, it was the best postseason start of his career. Qualitatively, too, it was his finest playoff start ever, even after adjusting for series, and it was as auspicious an outing as he could've hoped for following a particularly devastating October in which he was improperly deployed in the NLDS and ultimately saddled with an outsized share of the blame for the Dodgers' early exit.
Yes, there were mitigating factors. His opponent on Thursday night, for one, finished the regular season with more losses than wins - and a whopping 14 games behind the indomitable Dodgers - thanks to a pitiful offense whose most reliable regular in 2020 was Jedd Gyorko. The pressure was off, too, insofar as it can be, following Los Angeles' victory in Game 1; worst-case scenario, even if Kershaw got lit up, the Dodgers would live to die another day with standout rookie Tony Gonsolin on the mound for the decisive Game 3.
All that notwithstanding, he still delivered a vintage Kershaw outing despite beings years removed, stuff-wise, from vintage Kershaw, offering even more proof he remains capable of being one of baseball's most dominant starters. It's not like this performance came from out of nowhere, after all. He's been doing this all year.
Following successive subpar seasons (at least by his standards) marred by back injuries and waning velocity, Kershaw looked reborn in 2020, regaining some of that lost giddy-up and tweaking his pitch mix to tremendous success. Kershaw posted a 2.16 ERA and an 0.84 WHIP in 10 regular-season starts, along with an expected weighted on-base average in the 83rd percentile, while relying less than ever on his four-seam fastball. Sliders and curveballs accounted for nearly 60% of Kershaw's offerings this year, in fact, and that formula was on full display in Game 2.
Kershaw, who didn't face Milwaukee during the regular season due to this year's unusual schedule, confounded the Brewers with a barrage of breaking balls, inducing a season-high 24 whiffs while using his slider as his primary pitch (48.4%) and going to his fastball only about one-third of the time. When the Brewers did make contact, it was overwhelmingly weak: of the 13 balls they put in play, only five had an exit velocity above 95 mph. And as the game progressed, Kershaw's confidence ballooned: when manager Dave Roberts had a notion to take him out late in the game, with his pitch count creeping closer to 100, Kershaw waved him back to the dugout.
The significance of that wave can't be overstated. The burden of failure has sat on Kershaw's shoulders for an exceeding while and grown heavier with the years. Nobody would blame him for deciding not to push his luck, for acquiescing to being taken out from a practically perfect start before it potentially turned sour. But he didn't. He demanded to stay in, and then continued to dominate. And while that may or may not reflect well on Roberts, whose bullpen decisions probably shouldn't hinge on any one pitcher's assertiveness, it was reassuring nevertheless.
For months now, even before this bizarre 2020 season started, the Dodgers - boasting the best roster of their eight-year stretch of dominance - have seemed poised to exorcise the demons that have tormented them for 32 years. Whether Kershaw could and would shake his October stigma along the way was anyone's guess, and was ultimately incidental to their pursuit given the strength of their roster and remarkable pitching depth, in particular.
But for now, at least, he's off to a pretty good start.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.