Clayton Kershaw Can Erase Playoff Failures By Pitching Dodgers to World Series

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistOctober 19, 2017

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 20:  Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers reacts to his wild pitch during the seventh inning against the Washington Nationals at Dodger Stadium on June 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Dodgers failed to punch their World Series ticket on Wednesday. Up 3-0 in their National League Championship Series matchup with the Chicago Cubs, the Dodgers lost 3-2 at Wrigley Field.

It was Los Angeles' first loss of the 2017 postseason, and the champion Cubbies live to fight another day.

That day is slated for Thursday on the North Side, when Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw will toe the slab. It isn't a must-win for L.A. They technically get three more tries. 

It is, however, a must-dominate for Kershaw if he wants to erase his past playoff failures.

First, to stipulate: The Dodgers left-hander has been the best pitcher in baseball over the past seven seasons. Since 2011, he's led all pitchers with 47.4 WAR, per FanGraphs, while winning three NL Cy Young Awards and an MVP. 

It's a Hall of Fame resume, and the guy's only 29 years old.

In October, meanwhile, Kershaw's record is decidedly bumpier. In 100.1 postseason innings, he owns a 5-7 record and 4.57 ERA. In two mediocre starts in the 2017 playoffs, he has surrendered five home runs in 11.1 frames.

It's tempting to joke that Kershaw and pumpkins have something in common—they both get carved up in October.


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Yes, he's had his moments, including a gritty relief effort in the 2016 division series against the Washington Nationals. But the Dodgers have never advanced past the National League Championship Series on his watch.

In fact, they haven't made it past the NLCS since 1988, the year Kershaw was born.

That historic malaise can't be blamed on the Dodgers ace. The last several years can, however. When the lights get bright, Kershaw all too often turns into a ho-hum performer. 

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 14:  Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the Chicago Cubs during Game One of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium on October 14, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Ezra Sha
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Is it mental? That's tough to diagnose, but listen to the man himself prior to the Cubs' Game 4 victory, via Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times:

"Yeah, it's a tough spot for me just because I have to prepare to start [Game 5]. I can't assume we're going to win and then it just so happens I have to pitch. I have to expect to pitch and then be surprised when we win. 

"It's a tough spot because, obviously, I believe in our team and I believe that we can win tonight. But I can't let myself mentally go there. But we'll see."

Spoken like a guy who...believes in himself?

Back in 2014, Madison Bumgarner famously took the San Francisco Giants on his back and carried them to the confetti-strewn promised land. That example will rile Dodgers fans, but it's apt. 

Kershaw, another top-shelf lefty from the NL West, has been unable to do the same. Here's his chance, served on a platter. Bon appetit.

Last season, the Dodgers' playoff run ended at Wrigley Field. Kershaw coughed up a pair of homers and four earned runs in five innings and took the loss.

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 14:  Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers sits in the dugout between innings of the National League Division Series against the Chicago Cubs at Dodger Stadium on October 14, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by E
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Almost a year later, he can avenge that defeat and author a new autumn legacy. 

"I wouldn't say that the pressure is on us," manager Dave Roberts said, per Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. "I think that we're in a pretty good spot. We've got our No. 1 pitcher going tomorrow, and we've got two of the guys at the back end [of the bullpen] rested."

It's telling Roberts referenced setup man Brandon Morrow and closer Kenley Jansen, neither of whom pitched Wednesday. 

They've been rock-solid in the playoffs. Kershaw, as usual, has wobbled. His 4.76 ERA fits better with a No. 5 starter than a man who signed a $215 million contract in 2014.

Roberts surely believes in his ace, but he feels the need to qualify. That says it all.

All of the past disappointments will be erased, however, if he can put together one start for the ages. One start that reaches the breathtaking heights the best pitcher in baseball shows on a nightly basis from April through September.

Put the final nail in the Cubs' coffin Thursday night, and you're no longer the guy who couldn't get it done in the big game. You're the guy who finally ended the drought.

It'll be a big deal for the Dodgers if they punch their World Series ticket Thursday. If Kershaw gets the W, that might be even bigger.

And that really says it all.

         

All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.

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