Less than a month ago, a lot of people were asking whether the Dodgers were in big trouble. Don Mattingly and Andre Ethier had a heated argument in the Dodgers dugout. Mattingly called his team “sh***y.” On June 8, they found themselves nine and a half games back of the Giants. This matched their biggest deficit of the 2013 season as well. Last year they went on a near-historic run to take control of the division and cruise into the playoffs. No such thing would happen again this year, would it? I mean, you can’t count and that kind of stuff happening two seasons in a row.
Except there they were when they went to bed last night, 21 days after getting to the bottom of that nine and a half game hole, tied for first place after winning 14 of 19 games.
On June 8, Clayton Kershaw helped the Dodgers beat Colorado 6-1. Yesterday he bookended things with a 13-strikeout performance. He has been a big part of the surge, going 6-0 with era of 0.82 in June and ending the month with a still-active 28-inning consecutive scoreless innings streak. Overall, Dodgers pitchers led the NL in team ERA for June with a 2.63 ERA. Dodgers hitters were not as impressive, but you can be fifth in the NL in team OPS for a month when you got pitching like they have.
Also helping the Dodgers’ surge: the San Francisco Giants. They’ve been in a tailspin dropping 15 of 19 games. Their pitchers are 14th in the NL in ERA for the month, their hitters are eighth in OPS in June. Their defense has been among the worst in the NL. It’s going wrong for the Giants any way you slice it.
It may still be too much to ask for the Dodgers to replicate 2013. I mean, the surge so far has been nice, but it’d be hard to bet on them winning this division by 11 games again. The Giants won’t play this poorly all season. But no one saw that happening last year either. And as they’re showing at the moment, the Dodgers appear to have a higher gear the other teams don’t seem to have.
For years, a bulk of the postseason coverage surrounding Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw focused on his poor results once the regular season ended. The three-time Cy Young Award winner carried a career 5.68 postseason ERA following his NLDS Game 1 start against the Diamondbacks last year, a sample size spanning 15 starts and four relief appearances totaling 95 1/3 innings.
Kershaw had a subpar start against the Astros in Game 5 of the World Series last year and the narrative hit a fever pitch. I dug into the numbers at that point and found that a not-insignificant portion of Kershaw’s playoff ERA could be attributed to relievers coming in after him and failing to strand their inherited runners. At the time of that writing (October 30, 2017), Dodger relievers allowed 10 of 16 runners inherited from Kershaw in the playoffs to score, a strand rate of 37.5 percent. That’s roughly half of the league average (around 75 percent).
Kershaw finished out the World Series last year by pitching four scoreless innings of relief in Game 7. He returned to the postseason, starting Game 2 of the NLDS against the Braves this year and tossed eight shutout frames on just two hits with no walks. The narrative should have died there, too. It, of course did not. As the Dodgers advanced to the NLCS, Kershaw got the Game 1 nod against the Brewers and struggled. The Brewers got him for five runs (four earned) across three-plus innings. One of those runs included a home run hit by the opposing pitcher (Brandon Woodruff). Kershaw was also hurt by a passed ball and catcher’s interference on the part of Yasmani Grandal in the third inning. Not a great outing, but not as bad as the line score read, either.
In Game 5 of the NLCS on Wednesday evening, Kershaw once again redeemed himself. He limited the Brewers this time around to a lone run on three hits and two walks with nine strikeouts over seven innings of work. The only run came around in the third inning when Lorenzo Cain hit an RBI double to center field. Kershaw’s career postseason ERA is now 4.11 and it would be much lower if his bullpen had, in the past, done its job more effectively.
According to Katie Sharp of The Athletic, tonight’s postseason start was Kershaw’s eighth in which he allowed one run or fewer and three hits or fewer. No other pitcher in baseball history has made more than five such starts. That’s partially a function of opportunity, as the Dodgers have been in the postseason every year dating back to 2013 as well as in 2008 and ’09. But Kershaw still has to go out there and make the pitches, and he largely has. The “Kershaw can’t pitch in the postseason” narrative is dead. It never should have lived.