NLCS Game 1: Tracking Clayton Kershaw pitch by pitch to see how things fell apart for Dodgers ace
The somewhat false narrative that Kershaw falters in the playoffs sure got a boost in Game 1 against the Brewers
We're going to examine Kershaw's start, blow-by-blow. Why? Kershaw has this cloud of perception over him that he somehow has issues with the postseason. Some even insinuate it's a matter of mental toughness, the illusion that he can't handle the pressure or something.
There has been a difference. In the regular season, he's 153-69 with a 2.39 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. Heading into Game 1, he is 8-7 with a 4.08 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in the playoffs.
The thing is, there are some gems among the duds. Perhaps no series better sums up what we've seen from Kershaw in the postseason than the 2016 NLCS. In Game 2, he handcuffed the Cubs for seven scoreless innings, allowing only two hits. Then, in Game 6 with the Dodgers in an elimination game, Kershaw was roughed up for five runs (four earned) in five innings. He gave up seven hits, including two home runs. If he was somehow scared of the playoffs, you don't see Game 2. Yet the dissenters can point to Game 6 and claim he choked.
Now, for Game 1, Kershaw is coming off the best start of his playoff career. He held the Braves to just two hits in eight scoreless innings. He only needed 85 pitches.
Here's how his follow-up act in Milwaukee transpired, chronologically.
Kershaw rosins up and takes his windup position pretty much exactly in the middle of the rubber. He takes his warmups and we're set for action.
The gameplan on Lorenzo Cain was to work him in. Kershaw's plant foot ends up on the first-base side of the rubber and he comes inside with three four-seam fastballs. At 44 percent, Kershaw still uses the heater more than any other pitch, but it peaked at 71.5 percent in 2010. It makes sense. He can't throw nearly as hard as he used to and opposing hitters hit .299 with a .500-plus slugging against it this year. The slider has almost caught up in terms of usage (39.1 percent) and Kershaw went with a pair of sliders after that. Cain puts the second one up the middle and Kershaw's already in a dangerous situation.
Likely NL MVP Christian Yelich steps to the plate. To this point, Yelich is 9 for 17 with a double and two home runs against Kershaw. Kershaw again starts with three fastballs and a slider. The latter went for a passed ball, getting Cain to scoring position. After a mix of sliders and four-seamers, I wondered in our live chat if Kershaw would go to the curve.
You see, Kershaw's curveball is his least used -- of his three big pitches -- but most effective out pitch. He only uses it 16.5 percent of the time, but he held opponents this season to a .198 average and .229 slugging with a 33.7 percent strikeout percentage. It's his weapon on a two-strike count and, sure enough, Kershaw used it and struck Yelich out.
With a runner on second, Kershaw couldn't mess around. He induced Ryan Braun into a groundout with it on the second pitch of that at-bat.
Two of the six pitches needed to get a Jesus Aguilar groundout were also curves, including the pitch that induced the out. Expect to see the curve pop up throughout the night whenever Kershaw is in danger of giving up a run. Here, he got all three outs with his curve and the hit he allowed came on his slider.
Kershaw toes the slab for the right-handed hitting Hernan Perez. Perez is likely in the game because Travis Shaw would be stuck in a tough lefty-lefty situation, but Perez is a less-than-imposing five-hole. Perez shows bunt on the first pitch, presumably to get a look at Kershaw, as he's previously only faced him five times. It's a slider for a strike followed by a slider that got Perez to ground a comebacker to Kershaw. Only two pitches needed for the out, and that was big after the Brewers worked him for 23 in the first.
Next up: Mike Moustakas. Kershaw gets him to 0-2 with a slider and fastball. On the 0-2, he shows us his first drop down a little to the side of the night and misses. He would then get a Moose groundout on, what else, the curve. Four of his five outs have come via his out pitch.
Manny Pina followed with a first-pitch, line-drive single to center on a four-seamer.
A four-seam fastball and two sliders were all Kershaw would need to get a weak Orlando Arcia grounder. The pitch count is now 33.
It's only two innings, but we can see Kershaw's formula on display. He'll look to get ahead in the count with well-placed fastballs -- again, his fastball gets hit hard on occasion so he has to perfectly command the pitch -- and sliders. When he needs a big pitch, he goes with good ol' Uncle Charlie. One might wonder if the curve is so effective, why doesn't Kershaw use it more? I point to the very real possibility that if he used it more, hitters would see it better. It's best used when it's time to put a hitter away.
We'll now much less heavily track the rest of his start knowing this is how he'll work.
Kershaw had a really short half-inning off. He led off and the next two batters were retired in short order. Perhaps it mattered. Pitcher Brandon Woodruff hit a two-strike home run on a four-seam fastball. He had tried a curve, but missed and Woodruff didn't bite on it. It would be curious to give even a pitcher a fastball in the middle of the zone, given how hard it's gotten hit for Kershaw this season. The thing is, Kershaw missed. Notice what I said last inning about command. Now watch the catcher's glove and where the pitch ends up.
When pitchers are tired, command goes before velocity. Take note of the short half-inning off Kershaw had.
Cain would single on a 1-0 slider and Yelich took a walk on a 3-2 curve. Kershaw's pitch sequencing is exactly what we thought it would be, but his execution is faltering. Next up, Braun was able to foul off a two-strike curve (another warning sign), but he eventually fouled out to first on a slider.
Next up, Jesus Aguilar absolutely crushed a two-strike slider (he had tried a curve earlier in the at-bat, but Aguilar fouled it off). It looked like it would score two, but David Freese made an unbelievable diving catch at first. But wait, catcher interference was called, so Kershaw was now in a bases-loaded, one-out situation. He induced a sac fly from Hernan Perez on a 1-1 four-seamer. I was surprised he wasn't more aggressive with the curve here, given the situation. He did set Moustakas up with an 0-1 curve before an excellently-located fastball got Moose looking.
Things are tenuous. Kershaw's at 62 pitches through three and he wasn't himself in the third. Perhaps more rest in between innings gets him back to the stuff he had in the first two innings.
The Manny Pina walk to start the inning didn't look good for Kershaw. Pina crushed a foul ball on a slider and then Kershaw couldn't either hit his spots or get the calls he wanted with his fastball. At this point, it's worth mention that Kershaw's career ERA with Scott Barry as the home-plate umpire is 4.41, the highest of any umpire that has called his games. There were two spots during the Pina walk that could have been called strikes, but they weren't.
Arcia then torched a slider to left center and a Chris Taylor error made it runners at second and third with no outs. Pinch hitter extraordinaire Domingo Santana was next, but after the Dodgers needed a mound visit. Everything isn't Kershaw's fault, but he's not right.
Sure enough, Santana torched a Kershaw fastball and drove home two runs, and that was it.
Again, notice the placement of Grandal's glove and Kershaw missing middle-middle. He simply can't do that and be effective in the low 90s.
The final line: 3+ IP, 6 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 2 K. That is not very good at all, needless to say. Some people know Kershaw for having bad postseason starts, and this was the shortest one of his career. In tracking every pitch, I noticed that Kershaw had 30 pitches with two strikes and only induced the Yelich swing-and-miss. Even his trusty curve wasn't getting many misses.
Kershaw definitely isn't "scared" to pitch in the playoffs or whatever the nonsense narrative is.
What did him in this game was a combination of factors. The Brewers are a powerful offensive team. Kershaw missed spots -- in the case of Woodruff, very badly -- and Yasmani Grandal was terrible behind the plate. The Dodgers defense behind him was mostly sloppy. And Kershaw's fastball and slider were just hit too hard in the third and fourth inning. It's probably not a coincidence he started to lose it after that really short break between the second and third, but it's his job to overcome stuff like that.
In Game 1, Clayton Kershaw just didn't get the job done. There were other factors in play, but ultimately, the responsibility lies with his execution the second time through the order. It wasn't there.
And the narrative that he's not a postseason ace lives on. So many times in his career, he's followed an excellent outing with a stinker. He did it again.
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