Everyone wants Marichal-Spahn. Everyone expects Smoltz-Morris. Everyone demands the perfect pitcher's duel, an unyielding ace-off between two of the best pitchers alive. Adam Wainwright and Clayton Kershaw faced off in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, which made visions of sugar plums and dueling no-hitters dance in our heads. It had a great chance of being one of those classic games.
It was not one of those classic games.
At least, not in that way. It certainly wasn't a forgettable game. Kershaw set the tone, allowing a rare first-inning homer to Randal Grichuk, who is known more for not being Mike Trout. That set the stage for a classic, 1-0 nail-biter, something we'd talk about for years. Kershaw might have been saddled with the burden of a what-if for just that one pitch. "What if that curveball had just a little more snap on it?", he'd think while watching the MLB Network retrospective in 20 years.
Except then Wainwright did him the favor of being awful. If it wasn't moving 12-to-6, it was up. Up. Up. Up. And hittable. He topped out at 92, so it's not as if he were Craig Kimbrel and doing it by design. The Dodgers took advantage, knocking him out of the game in the fifth inning after six runs, which was as many as he allowed in July or September, and two more than he allowed in June. The fatal blow was a homer from A.J. Ellis, who hit exactly three in the regular season.
Dodgers fans went nuts, because a five-run lead for Kershaw is essentially a dozen-run lead for anyone else. The Dodgers, having won Game 1 of the NLDS, could now ...
With Kershaw rolling through five, he allowed a long, long home run to Matt Carpenter on a first-pitch fastball. Hey, it happens. Not to Kershaw, mind you -- he hadn't allowed more than two homers in any month this season -- but it happens to pitchers. You know, mortals.
In the seventh inning, the wheels fell off the plane that was taxiing over the waterfall. Here's how it went:
- Strikeout (to Pete Kozma, so a single using batter-adjusted metrics)
The double knocked Kershaw out of the game, at it came at the end of a brilliant at-bat from Carpenter, who fell behind 0-2 and fouled off several tough pitches before driving a meatball to the wall to clear the bases. The Cardinals went up 10-6, and the Dodgers were stunned. The Dodgers fans were stunned. Kershaw was stunned. Hell, I'm stunned. You're stunned. That's Clayton Kershaw, the once and future MVP, giving up one of the biggest leads he's had all year. Let's update the monthly run chart for Kershaw.
Clayton Kershaw, earned runs by month
Mattingly kept Kershaw in because that's the blueprint. Kershaw goes eight, but only if he can't go nine, and Kenley Jansen finishes the win. The Dodgers had won 20 of the previous 21 Kershaw starts. It's a pretty good blueprint, especially when they score runs for him. The last time the Dodgers lost a Kershaw start in which they scored five runs was May, 2012, and that hardly counts because it was Coors Field.
Instead, the Dodgers' best-laid plans are a mess, considering they were probably going to bring Kershaw back on three day's rest for a potential Game 4, which would allow Zack Greinke to start a potential Game 5 on normal rest. Can Don Mattingly do that now, after watching Kershaw grind and struggle through another rough October outing? He's allowed 16 runs in his last three postseason games -- four fewer than he allowed in the second half of this season.
Let this game serve as a reminder that the postseason is nothing more than an isolated sample of games to which we pay too much attention. If we were forced to write big think pieces about what everything means after two weeks in April, it would involve a lot of nonsense. Here's what's wrong with Kershaw. Here's what's wrong with Wainwright. None of it would mean anything.
Except, here it means everything. What if there's an ace-off and no one shows? Somehow, it might end up being one of the best games of the entire postseason anyway.