ST. LOUIS – Still dazed, even more confused, Clayton Kershaw roamed around the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse 40 minutes after their season ended. Most of his teammates wore tailored suits. Kershaw remained in uniform. He wasn't ready to peel it off, not yet, not his jersey, not his baseball pants, not even the hoodie he wore that unknowingly taunted him. On the front was a slogan for Major League Baseball, one that connotes something far different for the best pitcher in the world. ALWAYS OCTOBER, it read.
Over the previous six months, Kershaw turned hitters into impotent versions of themselves. Hits were rare, runs infrequent as full eclipses. Kershaw will win his third Cy Young Award in four years and is the favorite for National League MVP. He long ago conquered the regular season.
Two straight Octobers, on the other hand, have reminded baseball that Kershaw is not some unassailable pitcher cyborg. The latest came Tuesday, four days after the previous, a little less than a year after the first, all three at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals, the team as adept at October baseball as Kershaw has been troubled.
"They just beat me," Kershaw said. "I don't know. I don't think it's anything magic."
No matter what it seems, there is no Cardinals Devil Magic, no red pixie dust, no rally squirrels and no evidence a higher being happens to be a fan of St. Louis. Just harrowing facts, like the final score Tuesday: Cardinals 3, Dodgers 2, sending St. Louis on to the NLCS to face the San Francisco Giants, who disposed of the Washington Nationals in four games of the division series as well.
How the Cardinals arrived at a place of bubbly-and-beer showers left Kershaw in his postgame haze, his face frozen somewhere between incredulity and embarrassment. For six innings, he shunted aside the vagaries of pitching on three days' rest, limited the Cardinals to one hit and struck out nine. The Dodgers led 2-0, and Kershaw struck out the side to end the sixth. This was what they expected when they gave him $215 million for the next seven seasons, more per year than any player ever, a par-for-the-course expenditure on the Dodgers' record $235 million payroll.
Then came Kershaw's witching inning, the seventh, during which the Cardinals turned a 6-1 deficit into an 10-6 advantage in Game 1. This time, Matt Holliday led off with a seeing-eye single to center field and Jhonny Peralta served a line drive off the glove of shortstop Hanley Ramirez into center field. Up stepped Matt Adams, the Cardinals' first baseman, the exact sort of hitter Kershaw wanted to see.
Some context: Clayton Kershaw is inarguably the best starter against left-handed hitters. They batted .193 off him this season. They reached base 22.5 percent of the time. They slugged like slugs. And as bad as they were, Matt Adams was pretty much the exact same against all left-handed pitchers. He hit .190/.231/.298. Baseball is capable of creating dreadful matchups. Kershaw vs. Adams qualified.
After fouling off a fastball, Adams dug in. "We all, pretty much, were certain a curveball was coming," Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter said. Kershaw had thrown 26 in the game. The Cardinals managed one hit. Kershaw's curveball is a nose-to-knees bender, breaking bad like Walter White. Never had a left-handed batter hit a home run off it, not in any of the hundreds he had thrown. A Kershaw curveball to a lefty may well be baseball's most foolproof pitch.
The Dodgers' scouting report heading into the series warned pitchers about throwing Adams curveballs. Especially right-handed pitchers. The last nine curves Adams put in play against right-handed pitchers resulted in triple, single, single, double, sacrifice fly, home run, single, single, double – 8 for 8 with five RBIs. Lefty curves remained a problem. Adams was 1 for 13 with seven strikeouts, and even though the one was a walk-off home run off Pittsburgh reliever Justin Wilson, it was still 1 for 13.
So catcher A.J. Ellis put down the sign, and Kershaw didn't shake him off, and he raised his hands high as he does with runners on base, and he came set, and he unfurled the pitch Vin Scully referred to as Public Enemy No. 1 when Kershaw froze Sean Casey in a spring training game as a 19-year-old.
"Saw it pop up out of his hand," Adams said, "and knew it was going to be a good one to swing at."
The 102nd and final pitch of Kershaw's 2014 season rocketed toward the Cardinals' bullpen in right-center field, a no-doubter to the point that Adams exited the batter's box with both hands pointed skyward. He took two small leaps as he neared first base, lugging his 260 pounds a few inches off the ground as Kershaw stood on the mound, bent at the waste, rendered motionless by the sight of a go-ahead home run soaring over the fence and the sound of 46,906 at Busch Stadium saluting it.
"It just seems like one inning gets me every time," Kershaw said. "Obviously, that's not success. I feel like I have the ability to get these guys out. Oh-and-four now doesn't feel good."
Counting last year's NLCS, Kershaw is indeed 0-4 in four starts against the Cardinals over the last two seasons. He lost three games in 27 starts during the 2014 regular season. It's almost inexplicable. Was he tipping pitches? Were they stealing signs? Is black magic or fairy dust or rally animals or Yahweh in Cardinal red really happening?
"I don't know if it's necessarily that they have any kind of command over Clayton," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "I think he's pitched really good against them, other than an inning here or an inning there."
And other than falling desperately out of tune every so often, Taylor Swift is a really good singer. October is the sort of animal that turns on an inning here or an inning there, and this is not to say Kershaw is incapable of thriving in the postseason. He will. He is too good not to, much like the Dodgers have too many resources not to put him in this same position again for the foreseeable future.
How much of the group surrounding him accompanies Kershaw there remains the question at hand for the Dodgers. Mattingly opened himself up for criticism by benching outfielder Yasiel Puig for Game 4, and opting to use him as a pinch runner after Ellis reached base in the ninth inning. With Justin Turner pinch hitting next, Mattingly essentially said he preferred a decent-hitting catcher and a utilityman coming off an excellent year over one of the NL's most dynamic players.
Granted, juggling the Dodgers' outfield surplus, not to mention a mediocre bullpen, were two of Mattingly's tougher jobs, and those fall on general manager Ned Colletti, who in a postseason of expensive failures assembled the costliest. Like the Angels, Tigers and Nationals, the Dodgers won their division only to sputter in the five-game division series. And this, for the Dodgers, despite throwing Kershaw twice, along with Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu.
"It's awful. It's devastating. It's just going to pile on to last year," Ellis said. "It brings up thoughts of last year again. Familiar setting. Just kind of rehashes those old memories as well. You know you're close, but you're still not there."
Perhaps Mattingly and Colletti survive, granted reprieves by an ownership group that paid $2.4 billion for the Dodgers, though the likelihood grew smaller with a second consecutive bow-out before the World Series. Mattingly is far from a popular figure inside his own clubhouse. Colletti's job is the envy of executives who want a quarter-billion dollars a year with which to play around.
Certain expectations accompany these Dodgers, and one of them is not just World Series contention but success. October can do this, can turn a season of joy and accomplishment into one of regret. Twice in a row, twice in the prime of his career, Kershaw has experienced it in this haunted house. He threw the right pitch at the right time to the right person, left it an inch or two high and swallowed the consequences.
At 7:52 p.m., nearly three-quarters of an hour after Peralta squeezed the final out on a force at second base, Kershaw started to shed the final remnants of 2014. He peeled back his socks, walked over to a trash can and tossed them in. His pants hit the laundry basket. And then off went the hoodie, hopefully for the last time, because he's too good for a slogan to mock him. Clayton Kershaw needs no reminder of his Octobers. The disappointment is plenty.