It appeared Joe Torre’s gamble would pay off.
The Los Angeles Dodgers manager picked 21-year-old Clayton Kershaw to start the first game of the National League Championship Series against the Phillies. He had the utmost confidence in the youngster, and the kid delivered—for the first four innings, that is, as everything unraveled afterward in an 8-6 loss for Los Angeles.
He breezed through the dangerous Phillies order and was backed by a solo homer by first baseman James Loney. Things were looking up, but things changed with one nightmarish frame.
The strikezone by Randy Marsh was tight. The 28-year veteran didn’t give Kershaw the lower portion, forcing him to live higher than he would have liked. That led to a very troublesome fifth inning.
Kershaw faced Raul Ibanez to open the inning. He threw a fastball right down the middle for strike one, then fired another fastball over the plate at the knees. Catcher Russell Martin framed the pitch, but Marsh only flinched, calling the obvious strike a ball.
Kershaw knew then that he’d have to move up in the zone, which was dangerous against the potent Phillies. He tried to elevate just a bit, but he missed his target up with the third pitch. It was at shoulder-level, and Ibanez roped the offering into left for a leadoff single.
An at-bat the inning before was the beginning of Kershaw’s struggles. Against the immensely talented Ryan Howard with nobody out and nobody on in the fourth, he tried to paint the inside corner with the first pitch, but it was called a ball.
After a high strike, Kershaw threw a slider low. He wanted the call, but didn’t get it thanks to Marsh’s zone and Howard’s size; the Phillies first baseman looms large in the batters’ box at 6′4″, 255 pounds (hence the high strike call and why the low pitch went uncalled). But, to be a respected umpire, you have to be consistent, no matter the height of the batter. All pitchers ask for consistency, and Marsh wasn’t consistent.
Howard barely caught a piece of a Kershaw fastball to even the count. Kershaw then tried to groove a fastball on the outside corner, and hit his spot. Marsh stood motionless.
Pitchers try not to show up the umpire by venting frustration on the mound, and even though Kershaw showed little emotion, it was clear he was agitated, if not incensed. Howard fouled off the next pitch, a low fastball. The count was full, and Kershaw went to his slider, hoping Marsh would show some leniency.
He threw the offspeed pitch right over the plate low. With the movement, it crossed the plate as a sure strike, then fell into Martin’s glove just at knee-level. There was no way it was a ball, but Marsh deemed it as such.
Nothing came of the walk, as Jayson Werth lined out to end the frame, but the tight strike zone rattled the physically imposing Kershaw. The 6′3″, 225-pound Texan couldn’t nibble or throw low, ruining his game-plan. The wheels fell off after Ibanez’s single, as the pitcher who dazzled over the first four innings turned into a wild and shaken 21-year-old making his first National League Championship Series start.
The pinpoint control that helped him toss four scoreless had left him. The combination of the Howard at-bat in the fourth and the Ibanez at-bat in the fifth overwhelmed his psyche. He fired in a strike the only place it would be called to start his tussle with Pedro Feliz, right down the pipe.
He followed by missing low, according to Marsh, then uncorked a slider that bounced in the dirt and evaded Martin, allowing Ibanez to move up. Behind in the count, he desperately tried to win over Marsh by clearly hitting the inside corner with two fastballs, but couldn’t, and Feliz took his base.
Kershaw was unraveling, but Torre stuck with him. That decision proved costly, as catcher Carlos Ruiz turned on a high fastball from the lefthander and deposited it into the left-field seats. What was once a one-run lead was now a three-run deficit, and it would only get worse. He walked his opposing pitcher, Cole Hamels, on four pitches, a tell-tale sign that he had completely lost his composure.
He managed to settle down a bit, getting Jimmy Rollins to ground into a force-out and Shane Victorino on a strikeout, but couldn’t get the third out. He walked his fifth batter of the game, Chase Utley, to extend the inning, then Howard strode to the plate. The Phillies best hitter started his implosion and ended it, stroking a double to right-field to score Utley and Rollins.
Torre trudged out of the dugout a few hitters too late and took the ball from Kershaw. The lefty who had been their best pitcher all season made the slow walk off the field. He sat down in the Dodgers dugout and stared at the ground, trying to figure out how it all went bad so quickly.
His teammates tried to keep him upbeat, patting him on the back, but he wouldn’t acknowledge them. He had not only lost the 1-0 lead, but given the Phillies some breathing room thanks to this fifth inning line: 2/3 IP, 3 hits, 5 runs, 3 walks, and 3 wild pitches.
The Dodgers tried to come back, scoring three in the bottom if the inning off Hamels, but they couldn’t escape defeat. Ronnie Belliard popped out against Phillies closer Brad Lidge to end the game.
The fans filed out of Chavez Ravine, and the Dodgers gathered their stuff and walked somberly out of the dugout and into the clubhouse. The entire team felt Kershaw’s pain. Now, every Dodger and every fan was stunned and dejected, staring blankly in wonderment at how it went wrong so quickly.