Column: Clayton Kershaw’s dream start becomes another Dodgers playoff nightmare
After two batters, fans were booing.
After five batters, Kershaw was crumbling, standing off the mound with his hands on his knees and his stare fixed on the grass.
After eight batters, Kershaw was gone, trudging to the dugout where he sat alone on the bench with the same stance surely adopted by Dodgers fans everywhere.
Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers had everything going for them until Game 1 of the NLDS started and the Arizona Diamondbacks dominated in an 11-2 win.
Head buried in hands.
The playoff opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium was supposed to be the continuation of a late-season Kershaw dream, the potentially retiring Dodgers ace carrying his team into the National League Division Series despite dealing with a shoulder injury that would end a normal pitcher’s season.
In the span of 15 minutes, that dream became a nightmare.
The moment begged for him to be great again. He was terrible.
The narrative pleaded for him to be young again. He’s never looked older.
The demons of his past postseason failings were supposed to remain buried forever. They instead resurfaced with an angry vengeance.
Even in those awful starts against St. Louis, he never was rocked like this. Even on that cheater’s night in Houston, he never was overwhelmed like this. Even in his wretched relief appearance against Washington, he never was this bad.
In an eventual 11-2 victory by the Diamondbacks, Kershaw finished the Dodgers before they started, giving up hits to the first five hitters and retiring just one of eight hitters overall.
Double, single, single, double, homer, groundout, walk, double.
Every ball was hit hard. Every shot was a rocket. Even though center fielder James Outman dropped the leadoff double by Ketel Marte and dove over the final double by Evan Longoria, both balls were pulverized, while Gabriel Moreno’s three-run homer to deep left field probably is still soaring toward Eagle Rock.
The Diamondbacks were on every pitch, aggressively attacking Kershaw at every angle, 24 swings at his 25 strikes, only five swings and misses, never fooled, glorified batting practice.
By the time manager Dave Roberts mercifully walked to the mound to take the ball from a pitcher who had long since lost his grip, Kershaw had surrendered six runs on six hits in one-third of an inning.
The pregame roar morphed into stunned silence while the statistics screamed.
It was the worst start of Kershaw’s career. It was the worst start in Dodgers postseason history. According to ESPN Stats & Info, it could have been the worst start in baseball postseason history, as he was the first pitcher to give up five runs on five hits without getting an out.
It was all so damn disheartening.
“Disappointing, embarrassing, feel like you let everybody down,” Kershaw said afterward, standing calmly in front of his locker and solidly answering every question from the media horde. “The whole organization that looked to you to pitch well in Game 1, it’s just embarrassing really, I just felt like I let everybody down.”
There has been much speculation about when Kershaw would throw his last pitch as a Dodger. If the Dodgers don’t win one of the next two games, you might have just seen it. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
There was growing hope that the weary Kershaw could carry this tattered rotation through the postseason with five strong innings each night. That hope could be gone. This was never supposed to be in the script.
“It’s a tough way to start this postseason, obviously. We still have a chance at this thing, but that wasn’t the way it should have started for me,” Kershaw said.
Will Kershaw pitch again this series? Do the Dodgers have a choice? They are so bereft of starting pitching, it appears that unless he physically can’t withstand the discomfort, Kershaw will have to take the mound again.
But if he returns later in this best-of-five duel, expect him to be on the shortest of leashes, as the Dodgers can’t afford to absorb this kind of instant damage again.
Kershaw said he felt fine physically and was ready to make his next start if there is a Game 4.
“I’ll be ready,” he said. “I feel fine, feel fine, just didn’t make enough good pitches, nothing health related, just bad pitching.”
Roberts agreed that he would remain in the rotation, saying, “I think that if you look at it, he’s going to pitch Game 4 ... I’m sure that’s where his head’s at.”
In his postseason career, Kershaw is now 13-13 with a 4.49 earned-run average, the future Hall of Famer still a struggling .500 pitcher in October.
And to think, this game and series began with the highest of Kershaw hopes.
Since he returned in August after missing about a month with his shoulder injury, he was 3-1 with a 2.23 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 36⅓ innings.
His shoulder was hanging by a thread, his velocity had dipped to 5 mph below his peak, he was mostly surviving on sheer guts, and his grateful teammates took notice.
“He’s the first one to tell you he hasn’t been feeling, like, 100% and he goes out there and gives you everything he’s got,” Freddie Freeman said before the game.
In his last 15 home decisions against the Diamondbacks, Kershaw was 14-1 with a 1.80 ERA. The numbers and the storyline led to arguably as much anticipation for this appearance as any during his long postseason history.
Then the game started.
Marte hit a shot that Outman misread off the bat. Corbin Carroll singled up the middle. Then Tommy Pham singled to left. Christian Walker doubled off the left-field bullpen gate. Moreno hit a hanging slider a mile.
Kershaw finally retired a batter when Lourdes Gurriel Jr. grounded out, but then Alek Thomas walked and Longoria doubled underneath the glove of a diving Outman and here came Roberts.
True to his nature, Kershaw did not blame the fielding. He did not blame anyone but himself.
“Regardless of what happens out there, I have to be better,” he said. “It’s not acceptable.”
With the early exit — scores of fans among the huge crowd probably had not even found their seats yet — came the obvious question.
What happened? Was the shoulder bothering him? Even though he said he felt fine, he always says he feels fine, he has played with an enormous amount of pain in his 16-year career, so do you believe him?
It surely wasn’t a return of the postseason jitters, as Kershaw talked earlier this week about how he’s matured into a calmer postseason pitcher.
“At times maybe in the past I had a fear of failure and didn’t want to go out there and fail. I think now it’s just a lot more positive,” he had said, adding, “The nerves are from an excitement to get to pitch in the playoffs, to get to be a part of it, to be in this moment that a lot of people in the game don’t get to be in. I think that’s a better place.”
The Dodgers will face the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLDS starting Saturday at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers hope to continue their series dominance.
He quickly went from a better place to a dark place and now what? The Dodgers are capable of winning three of the next four against the upstart Diamondbacks, but they must do so with a pitching staff that is ever more tattered with an ace who has just been hammered into seeming hopelessness.
Before the game, Roberts stressed that this is not the same squad that collapsed in last season’s division series against the San Diego Padres.
“It’s a different team,” he said. “This is a closer team.”
A closer team that just saw its ace disintegrate. A closer team for whom a championship suddenly seems much further away.
Are you a true-blue fan?
Get our Dodgers Dugout newsletter for insights, news and much more.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.