Kershaw trapped in own lost episode
Dodgers starter suddenly unravels in fifth inning of NLCS Game 1 loss to Phillies
LOS ANGELES -- For a few hapless moments, Clayton Kershaw sat in the Los Angeles Dodgers dugout, stared at the floor and did not blink. Several coaches and teammates approached and patted Kershaw on the back, but he did not move. He continued to stare at the ground as if the answers to what had happened to him could be found amongst the sunflower seeds and the specks of dirt on the ground.
At some point in the fifth inning of the Philadelphia Phillies' 8-6 victory over the Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLCS, Kershaw went from a dominating pitcher to a clueless one. At some point, Kershaw lost his release point and couldn't find the strike zone. At some point, Kershaw lost the game.
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"I just wasn't comfortable in that inning for whatever reason," the Dodgers' Game 1 starter said. "I wish I could tell you what happened. Physically, I felt fine. It's going to hurt [Thursday night], there's no way around it."
The inning began with Kershaw throwing three consecutive fastballs to Phillies left fielder Raul Ibanez, who smacked the third one to left field for single. That Kershaw would rely so much on his fastball was not surprising. The fastball is crucial to Kershaw.
During the regular season, Kershaw threw his fastball 72 percent of the time. By comparison, Phillies Game 1 starter Cole Hamels threw his fastball only 59 percent of the time.
For Kershaw to have success, fastball command is imperative. He began to lose that command after Ibanez's single. Kershaw walked Phillies third baseman Pedro Feliz on five pitches.
"First four innings I felt great, but in the fifth inning I couldn't make adjustments," Kershaw said. "When you're out of the strike zone, there's probably a reason for it. That's part of the adjustment. You have to figure it out."
During Rick Honeycutt's first year as Dodgers pitching coach in 2006, the team acquired future Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux. Honeycutt and Maddux, the two pitching sages, often would sit in the dugout and talk about pitching. Surely they discussed specific sequences on how to approach certain hitters, but often these conversations turned into general theoretical discussions on the craft. Years of experience had taught the two many important lessons.
One day the two got to talking about what happens when a pitcher -- out of nowhere -- loses the strike zone.
"It seems like when things start unraveling, it just goes," Honeycutt believed. "It's like all of a sudden you start searching."
Maddux could relate to such wild swings. In Maddux's first full season in the majors, in 1987, he walked 4.3 hitters per nine innings, the highest total of his career. But Maddux learned quickly how to minimize his lack of command.
"Sometimes, the best thing is to slow things down," Maddux remarked to Honeycutt. "Most young guys want to power their way through it, when they should be going the opposite way."
In that fifth inning on Thursday, it appeared that Kershaw -- who averaged 4.79 walks per nine innings this year -- was trying to throw his fastball through catcher Russell Martin's glove. Kershaw, after throwing a first-pitch ball to Philadelphia catcher Carlos Ruiz seconds after walking Feliz, threw three consecutive fastballs, each clocked at 93 mph. The final fastball reached as high as Ruiz's armpit, yet Ruiz still smacked it to left field for a three-run home run.
From there it truly unraveled. Kershaw walked pitcher Cole Hamels on four consecutive fastballs. At this point, Martin tried to mix up Kershaw's approach. Against Jimmy Rollins, Kershaw threw sliders and fastballs. Rollins grounded into a fielder's choice. Against Shane Victorino and Chase Utley, Martin called for fastballs, sliders and curveballs. Victorino struck out, but Utley walked. Ryan Howard knocked Kershaw out of the game with a two-run double.
"He had to find a pitch that was working for him at that point," Honeycutt said. "[Martin] pretty much in that inning went through the whole repertoire trying to find it."
The final tally for Kershaw's fifth inning was ugly -- five runs, all earned; an LCS-record three wild pitches; 32 total pitches, half of which were balls; and only 3 of 8 first-pitch strikes (Kershaw's season percentage for first-pitch strikes was 56 percent).
For the first four innings, Kershaw had walked just two, allowed only one hit and thrown a total of 57 pitches.
"In a playoff game, you have to make adjustments quick or you're going to be out of the game pretty quick," Kershaw said. "I never felt helpless, I felt like I could figure it out in one pitch. I wasn't able to figure it out fast enough."
After the game, Kershaw was somber but in better spirits than when he was slumped on the bench shortly after being taken out of the game in the fifth. Surely he wasn't happy, but he appeared to have come to terms with what had happened. He answered each question from reporters politely, eventually admitting failure and promising he would come back stronger.
Part of the reason why Dodgers assistant general manager and director of scouting Logan White drafted Kershaw is because the young lefty has a strong mental makeup. After all, Kershaw, 21, became the youngest pitcher to start Game 1 of an LCS.
"Each outing is a learning experience," Honeycutt said. "You have to take each outing, each hitter, each inning and learn from [them] and then make yourself better."
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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