The postseason has always been a seesaw sensation for Clayton Kershaw. Some games are great, and vintage Kershaw is unveiled. But when the Dodgers have fallen with him on the mound, the painful memories of playoff past get revived and the old rhetoric of his inability to pitch under pressure is reborn.
Kershaw allowed three runs in the first two innings on Friday night, and the Washington Nationals defeated the three-time Cy Young Award winner, 4-2, to even their best-of-five National League Division Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers at 1-1.
The conversation of Kershaw's playoff imperfections will likely be all that's discussed among Dodgers' fans on Saturday. Not the sensational start by Stephen Strasburg, or the dormant Dodgers' offense.
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The Dodgers are not Moses, and the postseason is not the Red Sea. The other playoff teams will not part at their feet, providing a clear path to their first championship in 31 years.
After recording a franchise record 106 wins and securing a seventh consecutive NL West Division title in 2019, they are now just two losses away from perhaps the greatest disappoint in franchise history.
It all began innocently in Game 2. Justin Turner, plagued with back problems in recent weeks, couldn't handle a first-pitch grounder down the third base line.
The leadoff double was cashed in four batters later, when former Dodger Howie Kendrick recorded a redemption RBI that gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead. Kershaw limited the damage by striking out Kurt Suzuki to end the inning, but the lesson was learned: don't give Washington extra outs, not with Stephen Strasburg on the mound.
"I was able to get out of that first inning with limited damage," said Kershaw. "That inning could have gotten bigger, so I was thankful to get out of that allowing just one, but that's not what killed us."
In the second inning, buried beneath an avalanche of hit-by-pitches, walks, and hard contact, Kershaw allowed two more runs, and the Dodgers found themselves down 3-0 before fans could find their rally towels.
"The second inning tonight was not good," continued Kershaw. "That was the difference in the game. When you get two strikes on a hitter with two outs, they shouldn't score any runs and they scored two more, and that was the difference in the game."
As it turned out, three runs was all Strasburg needed. The San Diego native was perfect through four innings on Friday and retired the first 14 batters he faced before Will Smith lined a single to center field for the first hit of the game.
"I had a feel for what he was trying to do to me," said Smith of the at-bat against Strasburg. "He tossed me a change-up, which I think went against his plan, but I kept it in the back of my mind and got the base hit."
They scored their first run an inning later, when pinch-hitter Matt Beaty roped a single to right field, advanced to third on a double by Joc Pederson, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Turner.
With the tying run at the plate in A.J. Pollock (whose had success against Strasburg), the 31-year-old right-hander rose to the occasion and snagged a comebacker to end the threat.
"You try and do your homework and look at their weaknesses a little bit," said Strasburg. "But they're a pretty deep lineup so sometimes there's not many weaknesses there and you just got to go out there and pitch to your strengths."
For six sensational innings, Strasburg pitched to his strengths and was virtually unhittable. Throwing a combination of change-up, fastball, and curveball, he struck out 10 batters in all manners and fashions: swinging, looking, check-swinging, it made no difference to Strasburg.
"I just learned over the years that pressure's a funny thing and I think it's something that you have complete control over," said Strasburg, who lowered his postseason ERA to 0.64. "There's obviously a lot of expectations, there's a lot of excitement in games, but I really tried over the years to train my mind into thinking that every single game is just as important and just sticking to my approach."
An unexepected turn of events occurred in the bottom of the eighth inning when Game 3 starter Max Scherzer entered the game in relief and struck out the side.
Friday would normally be a bullpen day for Scherzer, but the move to bring in the three-time Cy Young Award winner showed that Nationals' manager Dave Martinez would rather put the ball in the hands of his capable starters, than his capricious relievers.
"I talked to Max before the game," said Martinez of the risky maneuver to go to Scherzer. "Today was his bullpen day. We held him back. He said he was good to go. I specifically told him that I will not use him in the 9th, but I would have to probably use him in the bridge, the 6th, 7th inning. So and that worked out good."
Scherzer has appeared In relief four times during his postseason career, and is 1-1 with a 6.75 ERA and eight strikeouts.
"This is the playoffs," Scherzer said. "You lay it on the line every time you touch that field."
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Meanwhile, Kershaw was a shell of his former self in Game 2. Sure, a late-inning homer for Max Muncy off the Nationals bullpen made the final score look a lot closer, but that doesn't take away from the sloppy start by Kershaw.
His once elite fastball barely eclipsed 90 MPH. Nowadays, his best two pitches are his slider and curveball, when they're on, he can still be lights out, but when it's not, like you saw in Game 2, its pedestrian at best.
Nevertheless, Kershaw should not be left alone in isolation to shoulder the blame for this game. The Dodgers offense averaged an NL-best 5.47 runs per game during the regular season. They scored only two in Game 2 and struck out 17 times.
"Strasburg was very good tonight," said Dodgers' manager Dave Roberts. "He was getting ahead all night and putting us away with that...we just really couldn't put anything together against him."
As I wrote on Thursday after their 6-0 victory in Game 1, it's only one game. But beneath the backdrop of bad Octobers for the Dodgers and their ace, the blaring message that comes from this loss means so much more.
These current Dodgers will always be haunted by the ghosts of October past until they rewrite the script and change the narrative. As they head into hostile territory in the Nation's Capital this weekend, these next two road games will offer them the opportunity to begin to do just that.
The reality for the Dodgers was always going to come. The regular season—albeit historic—was never going to be the narrative of this team. It was always going to be about the postseason and hoisting the Commissioner's Trophy.
Stephen Strasburg deserved to win this game. The Dodgers did not. They let an opportunity to take a stranglehold on this short series slip away and the heartbreak of previous playoff disappointments crawl back into their psyche. They've gone all year without a setback, without a reminder of how the final game of the past two seasons ended. Now, they will be tested, and how they respond is how they'll be remembered.