Blow It Up?!
On Wednesday, October 9th, the Los Angeles Dodgers played the Washington Nationals in a winner-takes-all game five. The Dodgers got off to a good start, building an early 3-0 cushion, and looked ready to roll into the NLCS to battle the St. Louis Cardinals.
Things went downhill in the top of the eighth inning, with the Dodgers leading 3-1. After Clayton Kershaw relieved starter Walker Buehler in the 7th and retired the one batter he faced, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts kept Kershaw in the game, instead of going to their pretty reliable bullpen. Kershaw gave up home runs on back-to-back pitches. After not scoring in the eighth or ninth, it felt as if the Dodgers had squandered their opportunity to close out the series; Howie Kendrick’s grand slam in the 10th inning sealed the deal.
The Dodgers have choked once again. Clayton Kershaw has choked again. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The Dodgers management has put Clayton Kershaw in high pressure situations numerous times, and way too often, Kershaw failed to deliver. This playoff collapse may be the worst one in the past decade for Dodgers fans.
Kershaw is the best starting pitcher in the past decade—in the regular season*. But when it comes to the postseason, Kershaw hasn’t lived up to the hype**. More specifically, he has surrendered numerous leads and been pulled from key games in the early innings. The Dodgers have also asked Kershaw to pitch out of the bullpen in postseason games; he is not a relief pitcher, and based on Wednesday’s result it doesn’t look to be in his future. There are players that have been proven to constantly choke under pressure, and those players very rarely can change that script. The only pitcher who did flip the script in recent times is David Price; after years of bad starts in the playoffs, Price exorcised the demons and won critical games in the 2018 Boston World Series run.
Some may believe that the best course of action for the Dodgers is to attempt to trade Kershaw—to rid themselves of the most obvious source of their choking. The Dodgers have won the division seven years in a row and have zero World Series Championships to show for it. Kershaw is 31 and still has many great years left in him; however, it looks as if none of his greatest moments will be in the postseason. Kershaw is the type of pitcher that will get your team to the playoffs but won’t get you over the hump. The Dodgers have proven that they can get to the postseason; now the expectation is to win the World Series. They have the talent to do this, but, as history shows, Kershaw unfortunately isn’t the same in the playoffs.
However, to overreact would be ill-advised. The Dodgers should hold on to their best regular season pitcher. They should consider a simple strategy to get value out of Kershaw: let him start games in the playoffs, but as a 2 or 3, and not as the top starter in the rotation (Walker Buehler has shown that he can do that). Kershaw should also never come out of the bullpen; it’s been proven time and time again that Kershaw doesn’t do well in relief.
Dave Roberts has been a great manager during his time in Los Angeles, but this isn’t the first time he blew a playoff game with poor management. In Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, Roberts went with Yu Darvish; Darvish had gone 1.2 innings and allowed four earned runs in his previous start against the powerful Astros lineup. Darvish followed this poor outing with a terrible Game 7, once again going 1.2 innings, while allowing four earned runs (and five total runs).
This past Wednesday Roberts pulled Walker Buehler at the ideal time, after 6.2 strong innings and in a critical situation, up two with the tying run on first base. Kershaw was called in and got the final out of the 7th. There’s an unwritten rule in baseball to never count down outs, but there were six outs to go with a two run lead. This is a save situation, and the Dodgers had Kenta Maeda, Joe Kelly and Kanley Jensen in the pen to get those outs. Roberts kept Kershaw in the game; the result was back-to-back home runs. Kenta Maeda came in immediately and was able to retire the rest of the order and finish the 8th inning. In the 9th, Roberts went to Kelly, and he sliced up the three batters he faced. After the Dodgers failed to score in the 9th and the game went to extra innings, Roberts kept Kelly on the mound to face the heart of the Nationals’ order. The first two Nats hitters got on base, and it became clear that this was not the same Joe Kelly as the one who pitched just 15 minutes prior. Instead of going to lefty-specialist Adam Kolarek to face Juan Soto, Roberts instructed Kelly to intentionally walk him. Then, with the bases loaded and no one out, the Dodgers’ manager sat on his hands, and let the beleaguered Kelly pitch to Howie Kendrick—despite having Jansen warmed up in the bullpen. When Jansen finally pitched it was 7-3; his solid performance in that inning would have no effect on the outcome of the game.
While it may be an overreaction, many Dodgers fans want the team to move on from Roberts. The previous LA manager (Don Mattingly) lost his job when the Dodgers were favorites against the Mets in the 2015 NLDS and lost a game five at home***. Here we have a similar case: the Dodgers were heavy favorites against another NL East opponent, a team which had, in its franchise history, won one playoff series. After a disappointing loss at home once again, and becoming the first 105+ win team to lose in the divisional round, despite expectations to win the World Series, it may be time to let go of Roberts. However, based on recent reports, it appears that the Dodgers are sticking with Roberts. It’s clear that they think he’s the guy who will get them to the promised land.
Yet with collapses like the Dodgers have had, history tells us that the best solution is to blow it up.
Why blow it up? Because recent history shows there is almost no recovering from a defeat like this. The 2016 Cleveland Indians blew a 3-1 lead in the World Series against the Cubs, and the next year a 2-0 divisional round series lead to the Yankees; the team’s curse lives on. The Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI blew a 25 point lead; they haven’t been the same since. The 2015 Texas Rangers had a 2-0 series lead against the Blue Jays, and couldn’t finish the job; the Rangers never recovered. In Super Bowl XLIX, the Seahawks choked with perhaps the worst play-call in sports history; they’ve had good teams but haven’t been a top contender since. The Tigers in 2013 blew ALCS Game 2 to Boston, allowing a grand slam to David Ortiz; look at Detroit now.
While none of these teams have been able to recover from crushing defeats, the Dodgers may be different. The teams mentioned above had a window where all of their players were hitting the prime of their careers; soon after choking, these players were past their prime. The Dodgers’ star players are mostly in their youth; Walker Buehler, Cody Bellinger, and Corey Seager are the players that will keep the Dodgers window open for years to come.
There is another alternative to blowing it up. Case in point: the 2018-2019 Virginia Cavaliers. In 2018, UVA become the first one seed in March Madness history to lose to a 16 seed. The team used the season-ending defeat as motivation, and won the National Championship in 2019. It is possible that the Dodgers can use this defeat as motivation for next year, and Clayton Kershaw can be part of LA’s quest to cast away their past failures and claim a championship. The Cubs won a World Series after a 108 year drought. After years of failure and disappointment, the Washington Capitals were finally able to overcome their reputation for choking and won the Stanley Cup in 2018. It can be done.
Speaking of Washington, the Nationals just overcame their demons of not being able to win a playoff series. Are they now destined to win the World Series? Was letting go of Bryce Harper equivalent to ‘blowing it up’? Pondering this too much would require another article, but it will be interesting to see if, in the next week, the Nats can keep it up.
*In the regular season, Clayton Kershaw boasts a 2.44 career ERA, .695 win percentage, 2464 strikeouts, two pitching triple crowns, three NL Cy Young awards and a league MVP. His resume clearly shows that he is bound for Cooperstown.
**In the playoffs, Kershaw has a 4.43 ERA and .450 win percentage, including 16 earned runs in 26.2 innings in World Series appearances.
***In Mattingly’s defense, Daniel Murphy hit two home runs to single-handedly win the game for the Mets.