After wasting yesterday’s golden opportunity to take Game 4 of the NLCS and sweep the defending champion Cubs, the Dodgers enter Game 5 seemingly setup perfectly to end things without sending fans into a panic. After all, they have Clayton Kershaw on the mound, who is undoubtedly the best pitcher of this generation and will likely go down as one of the best to ever take the ball. Of course, well, you know the problem by now. For whatever reason, the man with a 2.36 ERA and 2.60 FIP for his career over 1935 innings now has a 4.57 ERA and 3.68 FIP over 100.1 innings in the playoffs.
On social media, we all love to laugh when analysts desperate for content early in the season trot out Clayton’s middling ERA in late-April and early-May as some kind of sign of decline or a harbinger of impending career doom. It’s understandable, because what’s 30-40 innings against thousands for his career or over 200 for the season? Easily reversible, which is what he’s done every time that’s been a thing. Well, what concerns me about his playoff track record is that we’re now about a half season into his struggles, and if Kershaw had a mid-4 ERA with troubling peripherals in July, people would be a lot more concerned about his season outlook and understandably so.
Given that the postseason sample size continues to get bigger, it’s fair to wonder at this point whether Kershaw will actually turn it around. Every time he delivers a quality start in the playoffs or has a moment, people declare that the postseason narrative for him is over, and it is … at least until the next start that usually eliminates the Dodgers from the postseason.
That said, do I buy into the people calling him a choker and all that? I honestly don’t. To me, choking is shying away from the moment, like Jonathan Broxton pitching around a declined Matt Stairs in the 2009 NLCS because of what happened in the 2008 NLCS or Chris Douglas-Roberts leaving free throws short in the 2008 National Championship Game. If anything, I feel like Kershaw gets too amped up and is too eager for the moment, resulting in either tiring early, his breaking stuff flattening out, or poor command. But I suppose that’s me making excuses for him, right? I guess so, and it’s a familiar trend. It’s either sample size or the bullpen shouldn’t have forced him to go seven or it’s because he started on short rest. I know this because it’s the excuses I’ve used for years to defend him, assuming that one of these years he was going to go on a “fuck you” playoff tour like Randy Johnson in 2001 … one that hasn’t come yet years later.
It’s not that the excuses for Kershaw are necessarily invalid, and I even agree with them to an extent, but honestly? I’m just tired, man. Tired of hearing about how it’s actually the fault of the rest of the team when he’s always the best player, tired of explaining how the rare dominant playoff start is proof enough of his greatness, tired of making excuses for why the best pitcher of his generation has an ERA double that of his regular season career. At this point, I just desperately want to see him excel when it matters most for some kind of meaningful run, and Game 5 of the NLCS would be a perfect time to start, as his team is still comfortably up 3-1 in the series and he’s on regular rest with a chance give Dodgers fans something we haven’t seen since 1988: a World Series.
Here’s hoping he delivers.