Uh oh. Clayton Kershaw made a playoff start for the Dodgers in a game that wasn’t technically a “must-win” affair, but Thursday’s NLCS Game 4 was one they really needed to get. They didn’t. The Dodgers lost to the Braves and now face a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven NLCS. 

Kershaw’s line: 5+ IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 4 K

Using ERA in small samples is pretty dumb, but we’ll point out four earned runs in five innings is a 7.20 ERA to help illustrate how generally bad this stat line is for a starting pitcher who was an ace in the regular season. 

And that’s where the Clayton Kershaw Playoff Narrative takes off. 

Kershaw is the best pitcher in this generation, and it’s not really close. He’ll rightfully fly into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He’s won three Cy Youngs and you could argue he deserved more. He has an MVP. He’s won the ERA title five times. He’s truly a titan of the game. 

And yet, before his Game 4 outing Thursday night, Kershaw was 11-11 and a 4.23 ERA in his playoff career. It’s not a small sample. He’s now thrown 177 1/3 innings in the postseason, good for seventh all-time. 

Those who love to bash Kershaw will relish pointing and laughing at this game as one in a long line of Kershaw playoff failures. Here are five others:

  • In Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS, Kershaw allowed seven earned runs on 10 hits in four innings. The Dodgers were eliminated while the Cardinals won the pennant. 
  • In Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS, the Cardinals tagged Kershaw for eight runs on eight hits in 6 2/3 innings. 
  • In Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS, the Cubs closed the Dodgers down after getting five runs (four earned) on seven hits in five innings against Kershaw. 
  • In Game 5 of the 2017 World Series, Kershaw was spotted an early lead, but ended up giving it away and allowed six runs in 4 2/3 innings against the Astros.
  • In Game 1 of the 2018 World Series, the Red Sox got Kershaw for five runs on seven hits in four innings. 

There are more. 

Those who want to defend Kershaw will point out some circumstances behind some of those lines. 

  • That 2014 Game 1? Kershaw was through six innings with a 6-2 lead. He struck out 10. It’s possible to argue he was left in the game too long and two of the runners he was charged with scored after he departed.
  • The sign-stealing scandals of 2017 and 2018 would surely be brought up. 
  • In Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS, Andrew Toles committed a terrible error in the first inning. 

We could do the same thing with Game 4 on Thursday night. Kershaw was really good through five innings. The first baserunner allowed in the sixth inning was on a fluky infield hit. Then again, it was followed by two doubles. On the other hand, the Dodgers only provided Kershaw with two runs in support (on three hits) in the game.

Those who want to continue to defend Kershaw will also point out he’s long since proven his mental toughness and point to a litany of postseason gems. Here are five excellent outings to match the above five stinkers. 

  • Just a few weeks ago, he was brilliant against the Brewers, striking out 13 in eight scoreless innings. 
  • He threw eight scoreless against the Braves in Game 2 of the 2018 NLDS. 
  • That same year, he won Game 5 of the NLCS against the Brewers with seven innings and just one run allowed, giving the Dodgers a 3-2 series lead. 
  • He won Game 1 of the 2017 World Series, working seven innings and allowing just one run while striking out 11. 
  • He shut the 2016 Cubs down for seven scoreless in Game 2 of the NLCS, allowing only two hits. 

There are more. He’s had lots of great postseason appearances. 

It’s genuinely frustrating how many people completely ignore that and act like panics on the mound due to being so scared to pitch in the playoffs with pressure. It’s utter nonsense. He’s shown many times he’s up to the task. 

There have also been circumstances behind some of the bad outings in general, aside from some of the specific cases I noted above. He’s had back issues the last several years (including on Thursday night). Sometimes he’s been leaned upon awfully heavily by his managers. Heck, I saw it coming last year the day before Game 5 against the Nationals …

When someone can call that and phrase it as such, maybe it’s less on Kershaw and more on the manager in that specific case. 

Overall, I absolutely push back against the whole “Clayton Kershaw is a playoff choker” narrative. He’s shown far too many times otherwise.

I also think it would be too dismissive to try and excuse every single instance of Kershaw failing in the playoffs. He’s done it enough times that discussion on this subject is merited. One of the greatest pitchers we’ve ever seen is nearly two runs worse in the playoffs, going by ERA. We can jump through hoops with all the mental gymnastics in the world to try and explain it away, but at the end of the day, he’s been a worse pitcher in the playoffs throughout his career. There really isn’t any way around that. 

The narrative is going to persist until Kershaw puts it to bed. Giving up four runs in five innings of work in an NLCS game the Dodgers really needed to have doesn’t do that. It only extends the life of the narrative, like it or not. 

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