The 2017 World Series Was All About The Pitches Clayton Kershaw Didn't Make
It only took four pitches to realize that Yu Darvish didn’t have it. And even then, it was too late. A double down the left field line by World Series MVP George Springer on a 1-1 count to lead off the top of the first was the first of two quick punches that quieted a raucous Dodger crowd. The second came on the following pitch, when a measly ground ball tapped by Alex Bregman to the right side of the infield should have resulted in the game’s first out. Instead, Cody Bellinger, moving to his right, hurried an off-balance throw past the outstretched glove of Darvish and into the dugout. 1-0 Astros.
The following inning was even worse. After walking Brian McCann, Marwin Gonzalez smacked a double into right center field putting runners at second and third with nobody out. A sacrifice fly brought in McCain. 3-0 Astros. After retiring pitcher Lance McCullers, Springer stepped into the box.
The best part about this year's World Series was that no lead felt safe. In Game 5, the Astros and Dodgers combined to rally from three runs down to tie the game three times. In Game 2, they exchanged extra inning rallies in what turned out to be the most exciting four inning stretch of baseball the World Series has possibly ever seen. In Game 6, the Dodgers somehow flipped the script on Justin Verlander, scoring three runs on the ace just as it appeared he had hit cruise control. The Astros bullpen supported a 7.29 ERA before Game 7. The Dodgers bullpen was overused and tired exhausted by Game 4. Kenley Jansen, the NL’s Reliever Of The Year, had lost control of two games so far in the series (1 blown save and 1 loss). And Ken Giles, the Astros closer, had been benched. Up until Game 7, no lead felt insurmountable and no lead felt safe.
Yet something felt incredibly daunting about the 5-0 advantage the Astros had bolted out to in Game 7. And when Clayton Kershaw entered the game in the third inning, that feeling came full circle. The Dodgers had put themselves in a hole they had no business being in. Darvish had been terrible in Game 3 (1.2 IP, 6 H, 4 ER). The Astros had his number. And most importantly, the Dodgers knew Kershaw was available for more than just a 1-2 inning stint. Why not just start him? The big lefty pitched four innings allowing 0 runs, 2 hits and 2 BB, throwing 34 of his 43 pitches for strikes. Dave Roberts’ decision not to start Kershaw, and instead go with the embattled Darvish will always loom large over the 2017 World Series, not just because of the outcome, but because of what it could have meant for Kershaw.
A little more than a week ago I wrote a column about how one of the main storylines of this World Series was Kershaw’s quest to cement his legacy. I wrote about how important it was for him to have a good world series, and how important it was for him to have his Madison Bumgarner moment. Well, the jury has spoken, the results are in, and Kershaw didn’t live up to expectations. And when we look back on this World Series it's going to be impeccably difficult to omit such a failure from the history books. Kershaw had three chances to stamp his imprint on this series. He succeeded once. He bombed the second chance. And was simply relieved of duty in the third. Whatever you want to believe about Kershaw, whether it’s that he’s one of the best pitchers we’ve ever seen, or he’s just a nice regular season pitcher, the reality is that his World Series was not the stuff of legends.
Admittedly, if Darvish came out and pitched the game of his life on Wednesday night, there would be no reason to have this conversation. And it’s hard to blame Roberts. Game 7 was the reason they went out and acquired Darvish. He was supposed to be the second man behind the main man. His failure is his alone. However, Darvish’s poor start made Kershaw’s incredible outing on Wednesday night completely unsatisfying to watch. It was unsatisfying to watch because if the fate of Dodgers was to be put on anybody’s shoulders it should have been Kershaw’s. He’s the generational talent. He’s the best pitcher of this decade. He’s the guy who should have taken the ball. And he’s the guy who should have taken responsibility for the Dodgers defeat or victory. That responsibility was simply removed from his plate.
It happened in the exact same manner in Game 5. With a 7-4 lead, two outs, two on, in the bottom of the fifth and Jose Altuve at the plate, Kershaw was removed from the game in favor of Kenta Maeda. Maeda, who had been nearly perfect up to that point in the postseason, was matchup wise definitely a better fit to retire Altuve, especially with the way Kershaw had been pitching. However, talent wise he was nowhere near up to the task.
Altuve’s three run shot was certainly a worse look for Kershaw than Maeda, and not just because of the stat sheet. Here you have the greatest pitcher of his generation matched up against one of the greatest hitters of his generation on the world’s biggest stage, and the greatest pitcher gets replaced? That doesn’t happen to Kershaw type talents. And it shouldn’t happen to Kershaw type talents. And that’s what was so disappointing about this World Series for Kershaw. It’s not the fact that he didn’t pitch well in Game 5. It’s not that he couldn’t come through when it mattered. It’s that the ball was taken from his hands when it mattered most. It was taken from him when he had the chance to shut down an Astros rally in Game 5. And it was taken from him at the start of Game 7, when Yu Darvish took the mound, killing his shot at redemption.
And so when we look back at the 2017 World Series, we’re going to feel nothing but frustration in terms of Kershaw’s performance. Not all of that has to do with the pitches he made. In fact a lot of it has to do with the pitches he didn’t make. The ball was taken from him at two of the most pivotal moments on baseball’s biggest stage. He should have been more of a factor than he was. And it was tough to watch such a great pitcher not make the pitches he should have made because great pitchers usually get that opportunity. For some reason, he didn’t.