Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher of this generation. If you don’t think so, just go check out his Baseball-Reference page. There are few players in the history of the game that, when I look at the back of their baseball card, I’m in awe. Kershaw is one of those guys.
Until last season, the southpaw that has been a staple of Los Angeles’ rotation for 13 years did not have a season where he posted an ERA above three, except for his rookie campaign. That means for 10 straight seasons, Kershaw posted a sub-three ERA — a streak that was broken in 2019 after he posted an unsightly 3.03 ERA (sarcasm). Five times over that stretch, he led the majors in ERA, resulting in seven-straight top-five finishes in the NL Cy Young award race from 2011-2017, including three first-place finishes. The guy is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, and one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever seen.
However, Kershaw does have one glaring wart on his resumé — his postseason performance.
For being as good as he’s been in the regular season, that success has not translated to the playoffs, and he’s had several opportunities to overcome it. The Dodgers have made the postseason in eight straight years and ten times over his 13-year career. Kershaw has essentially pitched a full season (172.1 innings) in the postseason, recording 11 wins and 11 losses with a 4.23 ERA. Those certainly aren’t the worst numbers in the world, but for Kershaw’s lofty standards, they are unacceptable. Interestingly enough, as the stage gets brighter — the more he seems to crumble.
Kershaw has appeared once in the Wild Card round over his career and did not allow a run over eight innings. He’s started 13 games in the Divisional round and has a 4.02 ERA. However, that number bloats to 4.61 in the Championship round over 13 appearances (9 starts) and is an even worse 5.40 mark in his two World Series trips. There is no questioning that, for as good as Kershaw has been throughout his career, he has succumbed to pressure at some point in each postseason. The Braves have a golden opportunity to make that happen again tonight.
Atlanta’s ability to pull out Game 1 was so critical for a number of reasons, but most importantly, it puts all the weight on the shoulders of Kershaw to deliver in the biggest moment of the season. Had the roles been reversed — forcing rookie Ian Anderson to go toe-to-toe with one of the best pitchers the game has ever seen in essentially a must-win for the Braves — Atlanta would have been at a significant disadvantage. Instead, they have the perfect opportunity to make the Dodgers question themselves.
While Kershaw has had his struggles in the postseason, they haven’t come against the Braves. He’s made three starts against Atlanta in the playoffs — two in the 2013 NLDS and one in the 2018 NLDS — allowing just one earned run over 21 innings. That’s absolute dominance, but as the Braves proved last night, this is the most talented team they’ve had since the early 2000s. They are hungry and competitive, yet loose and full of confidence.
The former adjectives can be applied to Kershaw, but I’m not sure the latter can ahead of a pivotal Game 2 for the Dodgers. This is the perfect opportunity for the Braves to grab a stranglehold on the NLCS, as they eye to make it back to the World Series for the first time since 1999.
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