LOS ANGELES – The flags by then were dead against their poles in center field. The sky had gone orange-pink. The man in the bullpen threw with little urgency, presumably half-sure he’d be unnecessary. Hell, that was Clayton Kershaw out there.
The fans by then were on their feet, every single one of them, chanting and waving their free blue dishtowels. Already, one or more of them had been pulled from Dodger Stadium’s left-field bleachers, security arriving in white shirts to settle a disturbance with eviction. It was hot and there’d been a dust-up between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals four innings before, so it was edgy enough already, and now Kershaw was in trouble, real trouble, but it was still him out there, and so they believed.
The dugout rails were jammed, Don Mattingly was there too, having already spent one visit to the mound. Kershaw had said he was fine, had given him a look – that look – that said you can go now, and how could he not believe? The next visit would be the end of Kershaw, and the start of his bullpen, and the choice was simple. Mattingly stayed put and waited for the third out of the seventh inning. Three Cardinals were on base. The Dodgers’ lead was only two by then, but there were two out, and that was Kershaw out there, throwing pitch No. 103, then 104, then 105 …
Matt Carpenter, the left-handed hitter who’d handled Kershaw better than most over 27 career at-bats, by then was searching Kershaw for a release point, for signs of a slider or curveball, checking spin, ready for fastballs. In another town in another time, he’d stood right here, fighting the best pitcher alive for a handful of inches on his bat barrel. Last October, Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, he’d taken Kershaw to 11 pitches, ripped a double, and started the rally that would send the Cardinals to the World Series. By Friday afternoon, in the cauldron of Game 1 of the division series, the Cardinals’ ace having been chased before the fifth inning was done, the Dodgers having piled on for six runs, Kershaw never having lost – in 67 tries – with as many as four runs behind him, Carpenter was about to beat Kershaw again.
Through pitch 106, a slider down, and 107, a fastball over the zone, and 108, a fastball he fouled, and 109, a slider he fouled …
Seven pitches into a single at-bat, one Kershaw wanted so bad he’d found 95 mph on his fastball, and grunted on his slider, and then there’d be one final pitch that would, for the most part, settle Game 1.
“If I don’t get in the way tonight,” Kershaw said afterward, “we have a pretty good chance to win this.”
The Cardinals had won by the preposterous score of 10-9. Preposterous because this was Kershaw and that was Adam Wainwright, and they might not give up those kinds of runs in a month, let alone an afternoon.
But, see, the Cardinals believed too. A long way from home and down five runs to Kershaw, or about as done as a ballclub can be without packing up the bat bags, they’d started picking out fastballs and legging out singles in that seventh inning, four in a row to start. With only nine outs to spend, they’d start the rally that would bring them to within 6-4, and already the Internet roused to the notion the impenetrable Kershaw was tipping pitches out of the stretch (he’d faced the first 21 Cardinals while winding up), or the Cardinals had decoded the Dodgers’ signs, or some such subterfuge. (“That’s a cop-out,” Kershaw would say.)
Instead, the Cardinals hunted fastballs early, drove them through the middle, chased Kershaw toward 100 pitches, and beat him again, primarily because of one final fastball to Carpenter, the eighth of the at-bat and the 110th of Kershaw’s day.
Catcher A.J. Ellis set up away from Carpenter. The ball arrived closer to the middle.
Be on time for the fastball, Carpenter thought. Be ready for 95 mph. Don’t get beat.
“He’s a real tough guy to face,” Carpenter said later, sitting beside a sunburned Matt Holliday. “I can’t tell you why I’ve been able to have some success off him because it’s not easy. I don’t enjoy facing him. It’s not a real comfortable at-bat, but you’ve just got to try to battle and compete and it’s the postseason, crazy things happen.”
Yeah, round about the sixth or seventh pitch, having survived that long, Carpenter said the at-bat from last October flashed through his mind. So many people leaning in, Mattingly sure in his decision to let this matchup happen, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny turning to bench coach Mike Aldrete, taking a break from calculating bullpen moves and saying, “What an at-bat,” and then Carpenter rifling a clean double into right-center field. Three runs scored. The Cardinals, once down five, led 7-6. Mattingly returned to the mound, this time for the ball. Kershaw waited, his head down, smoothing dirt with his cleat. The people let the towels fall to their sides, and their astonishment draw them back into their seats.
Carpenter stood at second base, one hell of an at-bat behind him.
“I love to see that stuff,” Matheny said. “I mean, those are the things you dream about when you’re a kid. You’re up there facing the best in the game. And we’re not going to deny that, this guy has had a very, very special season. And to watch Matt on the big stage stand in there and put his nose in and fight, man, it’s just, I keep saying that I’m proud of this club. Because this is what I see: I see guys that just keep doing this and they fight all the way to the end.”
It was enough to win the NL Central. It was enough for one more afternoon.
At its worst Friday afternoon, when the faces – and the tempers – of Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina and Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez were separated by the width of umpire Jerry Meals’ mask, the game was about the pitches that continue to find the Dodgers’ hides.
The Cardinals would continue to claim that these pitches were unintentional. The Dodgers would continue to be weary of deflecting fastballs with their body parts, intentional or otherwise.
So, at its worst, there’d be no Dodgers in their dugout or bullpen, and no Cardinals in theirs, and somebody is going to get hurt, which, on some level, may be the point of all this. Well, somebody else is going to get hurt, after Hanley Ramirez was rendered broken and ineffective last October by one of these very unintentional pitches.
This is what the Cardinals and Dodgers have become, the Cardinals resolute (as they should be) and the Dodgers suspicious (as they have a right to be).
For the moment, you have Matheny with two handfuls of Molina’s chest protector, and Mattingly frantically searching for Yasiel Puig, who’d taken a Wainwright fastball off the shoulder and is known to be fairly combustible. These things linger.
But, at its very best, a single fastball was a bit imprecise, and a single swing changed everything, and the game turned in a way almost no witnesses saw coming. You know, unless you believed.
“Ended up being a big play for us,” he said.