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By Jon Weisman
It’s inevitable that at some point before this week’s playoff rematch against St. Louis begins, Clayton Kershaw will be characterized as a postseason failure who comes up small in big games.
The reasons for this will be 1) one victory in nine postseason appearances, 2) his pedestrian 4.23 career postseason ERA and 3) his disastrous outing against the Cardinals in Game 6 of the 2014 National League Championship Series.
It’s one of the dwindling dividing lines between Kershaw and Sandy Koufax, even though Koufax himself didn’t win his first World Series game until he was almost 28.
So here’s a little quick perspective:
Kershaw’s first five postseason appearances (three in relief) were a mixed bag, but all of those came before his 22nd birthday. In his first postseason start — and first postseason showdown with the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright — he held St. Louis to two runs over 6 2/3 innings in 2009 NLDS Game 2, the game the Dodgers eventually won, after Matt Holliday’s ninth-inning error, on Mark Loretta’s walkoff single.
Subsequently, the 21-year-old lefty shut out Philadelphia over four innings in Game 1 of the 2009 NLCS before a meltdown in the fifth that led to five runs on three hits, three walks and three wild pitches.
Move forward to 2013: Kershaw is about a month away from winning his second Cy Young Award as he heads into the playoffs.
- In Game 1 of the 2013 NLDS against the Braves, Kershaw allows one run on six baserunners while striking out 12 in seven innings.
- Coming back on three days’ rest in Game 4, Kershaw gives up no earned runs on four baserunners in six innings while striking out six. Two errors by Adrian Gonzalez deprive Kershaw of the lead and the chance at the victory.
- Then in Game 2 of the 2013 NLCS, Kershaw again allows nary an earned run on three baserunners while striking out five.
- Starting 2013 NLCS Game 6, Kershaw shuts out the Cardinals for the first two innings.
To this point, in his first postseason opportunity since entering his prime, Kershaw had thrown 19 innings and allowed one earned run (0.47 ERA) and 13 baserunners while striking out 23. His career postseason ERA, even including the foibles of his youthiest youth, was 2.73.
He had only one win to show for it, thanks to how little offensive or defensive support he was given in those games. But in the three biggest games of his 2013 season, Kershaw stood tall in each one.
Over the next three innings of Game 6, Kershaw allowed seven runs, in the kind of meltdown we have only seen once in 27 starts since (against Arizona in May). Kershaw has been the first to take on all of the blame for this. No past event has loomed larger for the 26-year-old lefty this season, and certainly this week, than the Game 6 catastrophe.
More than ever before, the 2014 playoffs will shape the perception of what caliber of postseason pitcher Kershaw is. It has become customary to expect something close to perfection out of Kershaw, especially since he expects the same from himself. But the absence of perfection does not mean failure.