I’ll never forget the first time I saw a real, bonafide curveball as a hitter in little league. It was the first year of Pony ball and I was batting against Ricky Garcia, with whom I’d had a friendly rivalry ever since we were teammates on the Mustang League “World Series” champion Indians three years prior. Ricky had apparently learned a new trick in the offseason. Being a righty-righty matchup, the pitch looked like it was headed straight for my face so I immediately bailed out. The strangest thing then happened though — I heard the seams of the ball ripping past and could only stare in bewilderment as the umpire called “strike!” I remember thinking, “That’s not fair! He can’t do that!” My world had changed.
In the early innings of last night’s matchup between the Dodgers and Marlins, all-universe ace Clayton Kershaw reminded several Marlins hitters of that memory that probably any hitter can recall. With the very first at-bat of the game, Kershaw froze Dee Gordon with a quintessential “public enemy number one,” as Vin Scully famously describes Kershaw’s 12-6 “soap bubble” curve. He later made $300-Million-dollar man Giancarlo Stanton look downright silly waving futilely at a pitch that apparently ended up nowhere near where he guessed it might.
Through the first 5 innings Kershaw was doing it all. He had struck out 8 Marlins and allowed only one hit, doing so efficiently with just 60 pitches. He flashed the leather when Christian Yelich’s ricocheting comebacker required Kershaw to chase the deflected ball toward third base then fire a fastball to Gonzalez at first to just beat the runner. Kershaw’s choked-up slap single in the second inning conjured memories of Brett Butler, and his majestic, gap-splitting, one-hop-to-the-wall RBI double in the 4th certainly didn’t look like the work of a pitcher. At that point he had more hits by himself than the entire opposing squad. He had retired 12 straight as he finished the 5th inning with ease and, with the addition of the 2 runs scored on pass balls in the first to Kershaw’s own RBI, the Dodgers had provided what one would assume would be plenty of run support on this night. He appeared completely in control and was hit hard only twice: the quick gloves of Utley and Turner each stabbed line drives out of the cool Los Angeles evening air. The crowd sensed the intensity of Kershaw’s focus too and the game had become about his dominance — would it be a complete game shutout? How many strikeouts will he rack up?
Just when I started feeling I might be obliged to alert my Dodger family that Kersh might be having one of those nights they’d hate to miss, everything quickly changed.
After Adeiny Hechavarria lined out to second to start the inning, Clayton Kershaw did something he had never done in his illustrious 8-year professional career: he gave up 5 consecutive hits.
Former Dodger Miguel Rojas hit a flare double to left. Gordon reached on a comebacker that deflected too far toward third for Kershaw to replicate his first inning defensive gem. Martin Prado singled up the middle to score Rojas. Yelich singled on a line drive to left center and Gordon scored. The look of utter helplessness and confusion on manager Dave Roberts’ face made me wonder if the only man that could understand what he was feeling in that moment was opposing manager Don Mattingly. Rick Honeycutt visited the mound to be sure Kershaw hadn’t been hurt by the deflection just above his right knee on Yelich’s single, but of course Kershaw dismissed any concern.
The energy was quickly changing at Chavez Ravine. The wind was sucked out of the stadium and the confident cheers of fans turned into nervous murmurs as Giancarlo Stanton came to the plate.
The crack of the bat told the story before the camera panned out and the only question was how far Stanton’s majestic blast would travel beyond the center field wall. As Stanton rounded the bases the crushing feeling begged comparison to two infamous 7th inning playoff collapses that will be mentioned no further here.
Clayton Kershaw is nearly unanimously considered the best pitcher in baseball and certainly the most dominant over the past 5 seasons. Perhaps it’s because we naturally expect so much that nights like this have such an impact, but I think it’s more. His intensity and focus never wanes, but every once in a while there are these brief spans of time where it seems suddenly the confidence is not there; you can see in his eyes that he’s as shocked as anyone. It made me think of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and had me asking in my own head, “Where do you go, Clayton?”
Kershaw did recover to retire the rest of the side and got through the 7th unscathed aside from a deep double from former teammate Dee Gordon just to further redeem the first inning freeze. The Dodgers would not rally, however, ultimately losing 6-3 and ensuring the Marlins cannot lose the 4-game series. Kershaw’s ERA though his first 5 games inflated nearly a full point to 2.43. While no one will question whether Kershaw is still unbelievably great or expect anything less than Cy-Young-caliber performance for the duration of the season, unfortunately the cynics will have one more example in their archive when the “who do you want pitching in game 7 of the World Series” questions are posed come playoff time.
Here’s to Clayton shaking this one off quickly in the next one.
Gerry Schwartzmeyer is a featured author at Around the Horn Talk, an official affiliate of MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @pgeradactyl.