The Dodgers aren’t desperate (yet). That may bode well for Clayton Kershaw in World Series Game 5
Clayton Kershaw is walking into a situation – making his second start in a playoff series – where some of his most unsettling postseason performances occurred.
Think 2013, and a 10-hit, seven-run Game 5 shellacking by the St. Louis Cardinals to clinch the National League pennant. Or 2016, and a five-inning, four-run Game 6 defeat that sent the Chicago Cubs to the World Series.
The six earned runs he yielded in less than five innings in Game 5 of the 2017 World Series now carries a historic qualifier – the Houston Astros were probably cheating in their home lab of Minute Maid Park. While there’s no indication the 2018 Boston Red Sox cheated away from Fenway Park, they nonetheless steamrolled Kershaw in a clinching World Series Game 5, clubbing three home runs off the lefty in seven innings.
Yet Sunday night, as Kershaw prepares to take on the Tampa Bay Rays in a Game 5 that went from coronation to crucial in the time it took Randy Arozarena to stumble home from third to end a wild Game 4, not all Kershaw’s indicators are bad.
An analysis of the 10 occasions Kershaw started twice in a playoff series shows, most notably, an uptick in home runs allowed the second time around.
Yet the Dodgers’ outcome is often predicated by their level of desperation entering that game.
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They are 5-5 on Kershaw’s second starts within a series, but just 2-4 when trailing in the series, indicating that their future Hall of Fame lefty often represents a last gasp in a series in which they’ve already been outclassed.
They are 2-0 when handing a series lead to Kershaw, who closed out the Atlanta Braves on three days’ rest in Game 4 of the 2013 NL Division Series, and the Cubs in the 2017 NLCS, giving up a run in five innings to eliminate the defending champions and send the Dodgers to the World Series.
And they’re 1-1 when the series is tied, as it will be when Kershaw takes the Globe Life Field mound in Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday night in Arlington, Texas.
For four hours Saturday night, it seemed the Dodgers would hand the ball to Kershaw in a title-clinching situation, until the ninth inning of Game 4 went haywire. Now, Game 5 represents a virtual must-win, with a shaky Dodgers bullpen game looming in Game 6 against Rays lefty Blake Snell, the 2018 AL Cy Young winner.
Kershaw was dazzling in Game 1, striking out eight Rays in six innings and inducing 19 swings and misses, a personal best in his five career World Series starts. Eleven of those swinging strikes came on his slider, his moodiest pitch and one he made a key adjustment with early in the game.
Kershaw struck out eight Rays in Game 1. (Photo: Tim Heitman, USA TODAY Sports)
Now, he’s faced with the second-start quandary of going with what works at the risk of the Rays going to school on his Game 1 game plan.
“You definitely have to take into consideration what you did in the past against these guys, in Game 1,” Kershaw said Saturday. “Maybe look back and change some things you might not have liked, change approaches.
“Obviously, any time the hitters see you, they get a little bit more of an advantage.”
That’s largely borne out by his two-time track record.
In those 10 series in which he started twice, Kershaw has a 4.24 ERA in his first start, and a 4.86 ERA in his second. The latter number may be artificially elevated, in that it’s possible Kershaw was tipping his pitches in that 2013 Game 5 NLCS loss to St. Louis, when he gave up seven runs. And only the Astros know know the exact advantages they gleaned in 2017, when Kershaw struck out 11 in seven innings of a Game 1 win at Dodger Stadium, but gave up six runs in 4 ⅔ innings in Game 5 at Houston.
One stat is remarkably similar in his first and second go-rounds: Kershaw’s walks and hits per inning. His WHIP over 57 ⅓ first starts is 1.099, and 1.095 in 59 ⅓ innings of his second starts.
The difference? Home runs. Kershaw has given up six in his first starts, or 0.94 per nine innings, and nine in his second starts (1.37 per nine).
These Rays and Dodgers have hit more home runs than any club in postseason history – 33 apiece, including Kevin Kiermaier’s shot off Kershaw in Game 1 that was Tampa Bay’s only run against him.
For all Kershaw’s mixed postseason success, his WHIP most closely aligns with his dominant, regular season self. It is 1.07 in 37 career playoff appearances, 29 of them starts. That’s not far off his 1.003 career mark, tops among active pitchers and fourth all-time.
So Sunday’s outcome likely hinges on two factors: Suppressing the longball, and hoping the Dodgers bullpen cleans up any stranded runners left behind.
They failed miserably in that regard in Game 4 and may need Kershaw to carry them deep in Game 5, with the Rays ready to counter-punch.
“Seeing them five days later, that’s the cat and mouse now – who’s gonna react?” says Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “That’s the fun part, the game behind the game, and I’m eager to see.”
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