Maybe now we can stop. Maybe now that Clayton Kershaw went and dominated the Milwaukee Brewers like he did Wednesday in Game 5 of the National League Championships Series we can kill the silly narrative about him being a choker in October.
It’s convenient, sure. And in the meme and hot-take era, where people just repeat things they read on social media and pass them off as informed opinions, it probably makes a lot of sense. It’s easy to cherry-pick bad Kershaw moments and say, “See, he sucks.” But the Kershaw narrative is tired as they come in baseball.
On Wednesday, the haters had nothing. Kershaw was as good as ever. He pitched seven innings, allowing just three hits and one run. He struck out nine and, when he was removed from the game, had retired 13 straight batters.
He was similar to the Kershaw we saw in the NLDS — not completely overpowering, but mixing and moving, his stuff good enough to keep Brewers hitters off balance and returning to the dugout, one after another. It was the biggest factor in the Dodgers’ 5-2 win that sends the series back to Milwaukee with L.A. ahead, 3-2.
Let’s add that to the list: This was every bit a pivotal game. If the Dodgers lost, they were going on the road having to win both games to advance. They needed a strong outing from Kershaw because they played 13 innings the night before and used every single available relief pitcher.
By any metric, measurable or imagined, Kershaw was amazing in Game 5. So it’s time we take a hard look at this monkey that’s been glued to his back since 2013, which is when he was anointed best pitcher on the planet AND when he suffered his first true postseason bruising.
It was Game 6 of the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals and Kershaw allowed seven runs on 10 hits in a 9-0 loss. His next postseason start also came against the Cardinals the following year and it also was really bad. Remember that one? He allowed eight runs on eight hits, including two homers, in a 10-9 loss in which the Dodgers blew a 6-1 lead and the Cards scored eight runs in the seventh inning. That was the game where the idea of Clayton Kershaw not being able to pitch in the seventh inning was born.
His performance Wednesday was so good that he went into the seventh — that darn old seventh inning — and got three outs on 10 pitches. It was like walking right past an ex and not even turning your head.
After Game 5, Kershaw has a 2.50 ERA in three starts this October, two of which were Dodgers wins. He pitched a combined 15 innings in those two starts, allowing a a total of one run and three hits while striking out 12 hitters.
The game in the middle of those two wasn’t good. The Dodgers lost to the Brewers in Game 1 of this series and Kershaw lasted only three innings while giving up four earned runs. But if you watched the game and didn’t just look for the I-told-you-so on the stat line, you know much of this was the Dodgers’ defense (particularly catcher Yasmani Grandal) letting Kershaw down.
Here’s the truth about Postseason Clayton Kershaw: He’s mortal. He’s good sometimes. He’s not others. But guess what? That’s true of A LOT of pitchers. In a baseball postseason where starting pitchers are doing pretty well if they make it through five innings, we’re still holding Kershaw to incredibly high standards.
Fact is Kershaw is the only pitcher in this postseason to have two starts where he pitched seven innings.
Fact is that a lot of this “Kershaw sucks in the postseason” stuff was built on seasons in which the Dodgers were depending on him to pitch on three or four days’ rest in October. Because a tired Kershaw was still better than a rested anybody else.
Fact is that a lot of times he was being set up to fail because of the short rest — and he didn’t always do fail. But that’s not something that you get credit for on the stat sheet necessarily.
With all that, let’s consider a few more facts:
• Game 5 was Kershaw’s ninth postseason start in which he pitched more than six innings and allowed one run or fewer, according to SB Nation’s Eric Stephen. That’s tied for seventh all-time with Justin Verlander and Whitey Ford. The only people with more? Tom Glavine, Andy Pettitte, John Smoltz, Curt Schilling, Jon Lester and Roger Clemens. Decent company.
• This was also Kershaw’s eighth postseason start in which he allowed one run or fewer and three hits or fewer, according to Katie Sharp of River Ave. Blues. You know who has more of those games than Kershaw? Nobody. The next highest in baseball history is five.
At the very least, these facts need to be weighed in the conversation when Kershaw’s critics recall his October struggles. Which, yes, those exist too.
Baseball is not a sport that lacks in data and information. So when we fall back on the easy “Kershaw sucks in October” talk, we’re only doing a disservice to Kershaw and a generation of baseball fans who have been tricked into thinking he’s terrible.
The truth, as always, in more nuanced than that: He’s a great pitcher who has bad days sometimes.
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