By Jon Weisman
It was an odd mission, unlikely to be rewarding, and it was voluntary.
I was listening on the radio when it happened, and it was more than six months ago, so some of its nuances — yes, there were nuances — weren’t fresh in my mind. I remembered the four-pitch walks to Cody Ross — yes, more than one. I remembered the three triples. I remembered that Kershaw just was not Kershaw — the seven runs makes that pretty clear — and that given that he had come off the disabled list just a couple weeks before, there was some amount of panic among Dodger followers.
Kershaw, of course, recovered spectacularly from the start, with a 1.43 ERA and 211 strikeouts in his next 176 innings. You wanted to forget that outing in Arizona? Wish granted. It was completely irrelevant to his National League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player pursuits.
And yet, I retained some curiosity about it, mostly because it was just so unusual.
So when it reran a while back on SportsNetLA (as part of its unofficial “Drew Butera on the mound” series), I watched …
Let me remind you that Kershaw had struck out the final two batters, including star slugger Paul Goldschmidt, in a one-two-three first inning, so there was no hint of trouble as he took the mound in inning two.
Ross starts with the leadoff, four-pitch walk. Kershaw had only nine four-pitch walks in the 2014 season, and two would come in this inning.
The next batter, Martin Prado, after swinging through at a fastball to even the count at 2-2, hits a chopper off the dirt in front of home plate that bounds over Adrian Gonzalez’s head along the chalk into right field. In a parallel universe, that’s a 3-6-3 double play – in this one, it’s a single to right to put runners at the corners.
Kershaw then strikes out Alfredo Marte, and I’m imagining him walking off the mound as if nothing happened. Instead, there’s still only one out. Up comes Cliff Pennington. Kershaw gets ahead 0-2.
Then he absolutely hangs a curveball, and it’s blasted – suddenly, I’m reliving the crushing home run that Matt Adams would hit in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. Pennington’s shot goes for a triple and a 2-0 Arizona lead.
[mlbvideo id=”32947287″ width=”550″ height=”308″ /]
Even though it’s the second inning, the Dodgers play the infield in. Tuffy Gosewich makes them pay with a single past Hanley Ramirez. It’s 3-0, and I’m sitting here going, there could be four outs in the inning already.
[mlbvideo id=”32947309″ width=”550″ height=”308″ /]
Pitcher Chase Anderson sacrifices to Kershaw for out No. 5 — I mean out No. 2. One out more for an escape.
Kershaw gets a 2-2 count on A.J. Pollock, but the outfielder then triples to left center, on an 88 mph slider that stayed up, to make it 4-0 Arizona.
[mlbvideo id=”32947525″ width=”550″ height=”308″ /]
In a near-echo, Kershaw gets a 3-2 count on Chris Owings, but the shortstop went down to hit a liner to left center that gained momentum on the grass, passed Matt Kemp and went to the wall for the third triple of the inning, to make it 5-0 Arizona.
[mlbvideo id=”32947633″ width=”550″ height=”308″ /]
Keep in mind, Kershaw had never allowed two triples in a game before. He only allowed two triples for the remainder of the 2014 season.
Facing his second 2-2 count in as many innings, Goldschmidt jumps on another lollipop curve and doubles to left for a 6-0 Arizona lead. There have been six hits in the inning, and all six have come with two strikes.
[mlbvideo id=”32947773″ width=”550″ height=”308″ /]
By this time, Vin Scully has rendered his verdict.
“They’re going to hang him on that slow curve today,” Scully said. “His big problem — all pitchers really work off that fastball. You have to establish the fastball, then you can go along with sliders and curves. He’s not been able to establish the fastball, so now, it seems like he’s using that slow curveball too much, and they’re just sitting on it.”
Ross comes up again, and bizarre as it is, he walks again on four straight pitches, interrupted only by a balk.
After that, Don Mattingly brings a hook for Kershaw. It would be the final time in the 2014 regular season he would leave a start in the middle of an inning. The seventh run of the inning, in what would become an 18-7 Arizona romp, comes home on an RBI single off Jamey Wright by Prado.
No one would argue that Kershaw’s 2014 season was unlucky, but man, there sure were moments. This start was one of them. You can’t blame what happened on luck, but with any good luck, it wouldn’t have happened.
It wasn’t about pressure — this was a Saturday evening game in mid-May against a last-place team. It wasn’t that Arizona had Kershaw’s number — in three other starts against the Diamondbacks in 2014, Kershaw had a 0.83 ERA with 24 strikeouts and 23 baserunners in 21 2/3 innings.
It’s convenient to look at what happened in the NLDS and — ignoring the six authoritative innings he pitched in each start before he got in trouble, ignoring his 0.47 ERA in his first three postseason starts of 2013, ignoring the hits that would have been outs if they had been a foot this way or that — conclude that Kershaw doesn’t have what it takes to beat the Cardinals or win the big one. It’s convenient, and perhaps it’s perversely soothing, to target someone who is otherwise so impressive for one’s frustration. He didn’t conquer, so he’s weak. No ground in between.
The reality is much more like this: Kershaw isn’t perfect — though he is as close to perfection as any pitcher around, he isn’t perfect. Occasionally, he makes a bad choice. Occasionally, he doesn’t execute. Occasionally, the bounces don’t go his way. And occasionally, not in May but in October, the timing just stinks.