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Dave Roberts, Clayton Kershaw and the vortex of Dodgers failure

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The Dodgers were primed for a third straight World Series appearance. Instead, they didn’t even win a playoff series.

Clayton Kershaw sitting alone in the Dodgers’ dugout after losing Game 5 of the NLDS

The Los Angeles Dodgers set a team record for wins in 2019, which is significant for a franchise that has been around for 136 years. But after losing back-to-back World Series in 2017 and 2018, the Dodgers didn’t even win a playoff series this year.

Clayton Kershaw added to his long list of October nightmares in a stunning NLDS Game 5 loss to the Nationals, and Dave Roberts picked a hell of a time to have the worst game of his managerial career.

“Winning 106 games in the regular season and going home after one round sucks. Our season, you can put it as a failure,” said Kiké Hernandez, whose home run in the second inning was the Dodgers’ last run of the night. “Down the road when all of us retire, we can look back and look at all the records we broke as a team this year for a great franchise like the Dodgers. For us to be one and done, it’s tough. I don’t think anybody in this clubhouse expected us to be going home this soon. It sucks. There’s no other way to put it, but it sucks.”

The Dodgers held an early lead after two innings against Stephen Strasburg, who dominated them in Game 2. Strasburg settled down to keep the Nationals in the game, but it seemed as if the Dodgers’ lead would hold. Roberts said he would ride Walker Buehler and was true to his word, letting him throw 117 pitches to get through two outs in the seventh inning. Buehler departed with two on, setting the stage for Kershaw, who carried his October demons with him on his jog from the bullpen.

Kershaw has now pitched in relief in each of the last four postseasons. The first three of those outings were quite successful, and include closing out both the 2016 NLDS and 2018 NLCS on the road. Wednesday’s outing seemed like another success at first. Kershaw struck out Adam Eaton on three pitches to end the Nationals’ threat in the seventh and preserve a two-run lead.

“I thought we’re home free,” Buehler said. “But that’s baseball.”

Had Kershaw’s outing ended there, who knows what might have happened. The Dodgers might have won. But at the very least, Kershaw would not have to bear the brunt of another postseason fiasco.

The Dodgers needed six outs, but danger loomed to start the eighth inning with the Nationals’ two best hitters up: the right-handed Anthony Rendon, then the lefty Juan Soto.

A nearly full complement of relievers were available to Roberts to get those six outs, including starter Kenta Maeda, who has thrived the last three postseasons as a destroyer of right-handed batters, and left-handed Adam Kolarek, who retired Soto in each of the first three games of the series. Either one would have been a fine option for the Dodgers, both of them actual relievers with experience.

Instead, Roberts stayed with Kershaw in a relatively unfamiliar role. Kershaw had a fine season, finishing 10th in the majors in ERA (3.03). He’s a perfectly above-average starting pitcher these days, though no longer the Cy Young Award-winning ace who racked up ERA titles by the bushel. With a few miles per hour gone from his fastball, Kershaw has been much more vulnerable the last three years, especially from the long ball. After allowing 12 home runs per season in his first nine years, Kershaw has nearly doubled that average since the start of 2017, and gave up a career-high 28 home runs in 2019.

Kershaw only needed three pitches in the eighth inning to begin the unraveling of the Dodgers’ season. Both Rendon and Soto smacked home runs to tie the game.

“I had one job to do, to get three outs. I got one out, and didn’t get the other two. I cost us the game right there,” Kershaw said. “That’s a terrible feeling. No excuses, I just didn’t make pitches and it got hit over the fence.”

“He’s one of the best pitchers in the game and for him to go out there and throw [three] pitches and to go back out there and get two hitters, I felt really good about that,” Roberts said. “It’s a guy that I believe in, and I trust and it didn’t work out.”

Those home runs not only tied the game but sucked the life out of Dodger Stadium, a crowd all too familiar with this October refrain. Kershaw has the lowest career ERA among starters in the live ball era (2.44), but his postseason ERA is 4.43 in 158⅓ innings.

“I’m not going to hang my head. I’m going to be here, continue to try and fight, continue to try and compete. I’m not going to shy away from it,” Kershaw said. “Everything people say is true right now about the postseason and I understand that. There’s nothing I can do about it right now. It’s a terrible feeling.”

Kershaw is absolutely revered in the Dodgers’ clubhouse. “We wouldn’t be here without him,” Rich Hill said while fighting back tears. “I have the ultimate respect for him.”

Kershaw was the Dodgers’ superweapon when he was the best pitcher in baseball, and they used him as such, starting him on short rest in four straight postseasons (2013-16) because they had no choice. But he’s not the same pitcher anymore, and the Dodgers are much deeper than they used to be. Kershaw is what he is: a good starting pitcher who should be used in that role, and not a savior who can ride in from the bullpen and save the day.

Maeda followed Kershaw by striking out the three batters he faced — because of course he did — and preserving the tie. He was followed by Joe Kelly, who pitched a spotless ninth on just 10 pitches.

“It sucks. Obviously we had a great regular season but fell short of the ultimate goal,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t for lack of effort, we have the talent. We just got beat. In Game 5 anything can happen.”

One of those things that “can happen” is letting Kelly pitch a second inning in relief, something he hadn’t done since Aug. 24. Keep in mind that closer Kenley Jansen was already warmed up.

“I liked Joe right there in that spot, I really did. After 10 pitches there was no stress. Ball coming out well,” Roberts said. “So for him to go out there and take down that inning and to have Kenley take down the other part of the order, I felt really good about it.”

Kelly had to face the heart of the Nats’ order — Eaton, Rendon, and Soto — all while pitching in his longest outing in seven weeks. Kelly barely pitched down the stretch of the regular season for the Dodgers while dealing with a nebulously described “overall body” issue — as if this were hockey — that the team clutched close to its vest. He pitched just twice in the final two weeks of the regular season, facing four total batters. In his previous outing in this NLDS, Kelly failed to record an out, walking three of the four hitters he faced.

So when Eaton walked and Rendon hit a ground-rule double to start the 10th inning, it was not a surprise. It was, in fact, a perfect spot to bring in Kolarek to face Soto, who Kolarek retired on two strikeouts and a ground out in their three previous series meetings. Instead, Roberts opted to walk Soto to load the bases with nobody out for Howie Kendrick.

“I just felt that Joe had a good chance to put Howie on the ground and potentially then get Kenley on Zimmerman,” Roberts said. “And so my thought was to try to get a ground ball right there.”

What he got was a grand slam, propelling the Nationals to their first series win since moving to Washington D.C.

Plenty of blame to go around

The Dodgers’ season didn’t end solely because of the failures of Kershaw and Roberts.

“What’s lost in this is this was Game 5,” Buehler said. “We lost two other games along the way.”

“You lose as a team, you win as a team,” Cody Bellinger said. “It’s not on anyone in particular.”

The Dodgers hit .220/.303/.428 as a team, scoring a little over four runs per game, more than a run fewer than their National League-best offense during the regular season.

Bellinger, the favorite for NL MVP, was 4-for-19 (.211) with a double, two walks, and seven strikeouts. He’s hitting .178/.234/.326 in 145 plate appearances in the postseason through three seasons, in case anyone is looking for someone else to share Kershaw’s odious October choker label.

Or maybe it should be shortstop Corey Seager, who was 3-for-20 (.150) with eight strikeouts in this NLDS. The two-time All-Star and fellow Rookie of the Year winner with Bellinger is at .203/.275/.331 in his 131 playoff plate appearances.

Those are the two best position players the Dodgers have produced in the last decade, and both have been terrible in the postseason. Small sample sizes, sure, but any team will struggle in October when it can’t rely on its best players.

Feel free to blame the front office, too

Tasked with staying under the competitive balance tax threshold for a second consecutive year, the Dodgers’ two free agent signings last offseason were Kelly for $25 million over three years, and outfielder A.J. Pollock for $55 million over four years with a player option for a fifth.

You couldn’t go more than three or four days listening to Dodgers broadcasts without a reminder of how good Kelly’s stuff is. The problem is, it didn’t translate into results. Kelly posted a 4.56 ERA and was roughly a replacement-level player over the course of the season.

Signed in part because he threw six scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts for the Red Sox in last year’s World Series against the Dodgers, Kelly has now been a central figure in ousting three of the Dodgers’ seven straight division-winning teams from the postseason. As a starter with the Cardinals in 2013, he threw the fastball that broke Hanley Ramirez’s rib and subdued the Dodgers’ best hitter.

Pollock, who has qualified for the batting title once in his career and averaged 101 games per season in his six years in Arizona, was injury-prone again in his first year in Los Angeles, appearing in 86 games. He was supposed to provide plus defense in center field, but was eventually moved to left field in the first year of his deal.

After returning from injury at the All-Star break, Pollock was useful down the stretch, hitting .288/.348/.537 with 13 home runs, but he was completely shut down in the NLDS. In one of the worst playoff series performances in MLB history, Pollock was 0-for-13 with 11 strikeouts, and looked lost at the plate. He didn’t even start the last two games of the series, though he was sent up to pinch hit to start the 10th inning down four runs — a proverbial white flag from Roberts signaling the Dodgers’ impending doom.

The Dodgers desperately needed bullpen help by midseason, but instead added only one reliever at the trade deadline in Kolarek. He proved to be quite useful, a ground ball specialist who was hell on left-handed batters.

Kolarek had the most defined role on the team, especially in the NLDS. He was the Soto specialist. Yet in Game 5, the Dodgers did not turn to Kolarek in either of Soto’s final two plate appearances. All Soto did was hit the game-tying home run off Kershaw, then get intentionally walked so a tiring and ineffective Kelly could face his eighth batter of the night.

Not so efficient.

If you’re looking for a bright spot as a Dodgers fan, at least they won’t have to hear comparisons to the Buffalo Bills. You can’t lose yet another World Series if you don’t qualify. But this loss stings more than the Fall Classic defeats of 2017 and 2018.

“This means so much to everybody in this locker room,” Hill said. “That’s the tough part. When people say it’s just a game, you know, it’s a lot more than that.”