Baseball

For Clayton Kershaw, fearlessness was the key in beating Diamondbacks

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw sits on the bench after being removed during the seventh inning of Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw sits on the bench after being removed during the seventh inning of Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Associated Press

By themselves, the home runs could be viewed as an aberration. In the context of the last month, they are a clear sign of trouble.

Clayton Kershaw isn’t himself.

Kershaw became the first pitcher in Dodgers history to serve up four home runs in a postseason game, doing so Friday night in the opening game of a National League Division Series.

“I gave up too many home runs, obviously,” he said.

To be fair, the Dodgers beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 9-5. Kershaw did enough to win.

He pitched 6 1/3 innings and departed with a three-run lead. He struck out seven. He threw 100 pitches, the overwhelming majority of them fastballs.

He also walked three batters.

And then there were the home runs. The solo blast by A.J. Pollock in the third inning. Another by J.D. Martinez in the sixth.

And the back-to-back home runs by Ketel Marte and Jeff Mathis in the seventh.

“I didn’t have much left,” Kershaw acknowledged. “Obviously, a frustrating way to end it.”

As much as the Dodgers boast about their depth and claim to be less dependent on Kershaw, the reality is they won’t win the World Series with him pitching like this. He is their best pitcher. He is their on-field leader.

The uneven performance was a continuation of September, when Kershaw made six starts after missing the previous five weeks with a strained back. After blanking the San Diego Padres for six innings on Sept. 1, he never looked right, posting a 4.23 ERA over his last five starts. He allowed a home run in each of the last five games.

Kershaw insisted nothing was wrong with him physically.

“Good, thank you,” he said when asked about how his back felt.

But if Kershaw is anything, he is emotionally resilient. This could be the most overlooked of Kershaw’s virtues. Every time the game has knocked him down, he has picked himself back up. He has experienced the worst postseason baseball has to offer, but always returned for more.

“Thankful for another opportunity,” Kershaw said.

He welcomed the latest opportunity, knowing fully well this October could end how it did in 2013, when he melted down against the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Championship Series.

Or how it did in 2014, when he and the Dodgers were knocked out again by the Cardinals, this time on a home run by Matt Adams.

Or how it did last year, when he lost an elimination game to the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS.

He entered Friday night with a career playoff ERA of 4.55, which ranked 61st among the 67 pitchers with 10 or more postseason starts.

There were times Kershaw was combative with reporters in the aftermath of these defeats, but he was never dismissive of the media. He never pretended the failure didn’t bother him and he never told his critics they had “sorry lives,” as LeBron James once did after falling in the NBA finals.

He recharged over the winter, regained his resolve and returned to work with as much intensity as he had the previous season.

On pretty much every day he doesn’t pitch, he is the first Dodgers player on the field, already running in the outfield when reporters start trickling into the pressbox.

If this postseason marks another opportunity for Kershaw to earn a World Series ring, it also marks another chance for failure.

“That’s basically what it is,” Game 2 starter Rich Hill said. “You’re going out there and you’re putting yourself in a position to fail, but in doing that, you’re giving it everything you can to succeed.”

The other Dodgers find inspiration in Kershaw’s fearlessness.

“Any time you have someone out there exuding that passion for what they do, it’s a magnet,” Hill said. “You attract that intensity from other players.”

Kershaw was clearly amped up in the first inning, touching 96 mph with his fastball on the stadium radar gun. The Dodgers followed his lead, scoring four times in the bottom of the inning against rattled Diamondbacks starter Taijuan Walker.

Then came the home runs. Kershaw allowed a career-high 23 in the regular season.

The back-to-back homers in the seventh inning also brought back unpleasant memories. His postseason ERA in the seventh inning as a starter is 25.50.

But that won’t scare Kershaw.

The Cardinals and Cubs couldn’t break him. This won’t, either.

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