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Clayton Kershaw lost, but don’t call him an October failure

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Clayton Kershaw came into this World Series with the reputation of a guy who simply couldn’t get it done in October. That was not completely fair — he has had both successes and failures in October — but it was the label that stuck. After his loss in Game 5 there will be many who will continue to say that Kershaw is an October choker. They will question his fortitude and everything that goes along with it. That will be completely unfair, because to say that is to simply ignore both who Kershaw is as a pitcher at this moment and what he was facing on this night.

As was made clear in our main game story, the 2018 Boston Red Sox were simply an overwhelming force of nature. Even with half of their lineup slumping for long stretches in this Series, there was never a time when it felt like they were, or could be, truly contained. We saw that in Game 4 when they exploded in the late innings and we saw it again tonight when they went deep four times. Whatever trouble they had hitting the ball in the wee hours of Saturday morning’s Game 3 they were, ultimately, exactly who we thought they were all season long: the best, most balanced and deepest lineup in baseball, capable of taking control of any game. To expect any pitcher to rein them in seems silly.

But it wasn’t silly to think that Clayton Kershaw — the best pitcher on planet Earth for he past several seasons — could do it, right?

Nah. Mostly because the Clayton Kershaw we all watched this postseason is not the same pitcher he used to be.

Kershaw still carries himself like an ace, but he has taken a clear step back. Whether it’s because of mileage or, more likely, because of various injuries he’s suffered over the past few years, his fastball velocity has diminished considerably and, with it, his ability to induce swings and misses and, in turn, his strikeout rate. He has continued to put up numbers that are good for most pitchers because he’s smart, tough and is working on becoming wily, but his wily qualities are not quite fully developed yet. Where that leaves him is throwing a fastball that is no longer several miles per hour above his once-deadly slider — indeed those pitches have basically converged — and when you can’t change speeds you can’t fool hitters.

Where did that leave him tonight? His max fastball was 91.6 m.p.h., which is the slowest he has been all season. Without any explosiveness, Boston batters could anticipate most of his pitches coming in at the same rate and could sit on them, waiting to see if they were sliders or fastballs, willing to risk that they would not get fooled by Kershaw’s famous curve. It was like a third of his arsenal was gone. It was like taking away Larry Holmes’ jab.

Still, Kershaw gutted it out. He made it through seven innings, throwing 92 pitches, knowing damn well that there was no effective Dodger bullpen to bail him out. The results weren’t great — he allowed three homers and never seemed to be fully in control — but he gave it his all, his compromised repertoire notwithstanding.

As I said before, a whole lot of people are going to use Clayton Kershaw’s loss in Game 5 as more evidence that he is an October failure. That he lacks the ability to come through in big games because he is, somehow, lacking in some essential way. You can look at it that way if you want. I choose to look at him differently.

I choose to look at him as a future Hall of Fame pitcher who, rather suddenly, has found himself in a mid-career crisis and who did the very best he could under the circumstances, trying to become a different pitcher than he has always been on the fly against the best team in baseball. There’s something admirable in that, even if it came in a losing effort.

Nationals’ Soto youngest ever to win NL batting crown

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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WASHINGTON — Juan Soto became the National League’s youngest batting champion, Trea Turner hit a grand slam and drove in seven runs, and the Washington Nationals closed out the season with a 15-5 victory over the New York Mets on Sunday.

Soto walked and singled before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the third inning, elevating his average to .351 and sealing the NL lead in the category during this pandemic-shortened 60-game season.

The 21-year-old Soto surpassed Brooklyn’s Pete Reiser for the youngest ever to take a batting crown. Reiser was 22 when he ended the 1941 season hitting a league-leading .343.

“For me, it doesn’t matter the age,” Soto said with a smile when informed of the feat’s historical significance. “If you deserve it, you deserve it.”

Soto held off Atlanta teammates Freddie Freeman (.341) and Marcell Ozuna (.338) and also finished 2020 with the major league-lead in on-base percentage (.490) and slugging percentage (.695).

Yan Gomes homered for Washington, which won seven of its last nine and closed the season on a three-game winning streak and caught the Mets in the NL East standings.

“These guys don’t quit,” Washington manager Dave Martinez said. “They play hard every day and you saw what they did the last nine games. I’m proud of them hanging in there.”

The Nationals finished 26-34 a year after winning their first World Series. The Nationals’ .433 winning percentage in the truncated season was the lowest for a defending champion since the 1998 Florida Marlins went 54-108 (.333).

New York slipped from 86-76 last season and third place in the NL East to 26-34 and tied for fourth in manager Luis Rojas’ first season. The Mets still held slim playoff hopes entering Saturday before dropping three in a row, and they would have secured a wild card had they won those games because of three-game slides by Philadelphia and San Francisco to end the season.

“We didn’t get it done,” Rojas said. “We needed to do it, and we didn’t do it. It was definitely all on us. It makes it a little bit more frustrating just seeing that part happened the way we wanted, but we didn’t execute what we needed to do.”

Pete Alonso homered twice for New York and finished with 16 after clubbing a rookie-record 53 last season. Guillermo Heredia added a solo shot for the Mets.

Washington right-hander Austin Voth (2-5) needed 36 pitches to escape the first but made it through five innings to close his season with back-to-back victories. Voth allowed four runs while striking out four.

The Nationals chased Mets starter Seth Lugo after 1 1/3 innings. Lugo (3-4) allowed six runs on five hits and two walks.

With Washington already leading 7-3, Turner busted the game open with a third-inning grand slam off reliever Steven Matz. It was Washington’s first grand slam of the season.

KENDRICK’S FUTURE

Washington and INF Howie Kendrick have a mutual option for 2021, and he has at least one prominent figure hopeful for his return.

“I’m holding onto his leg,” Martinez said. “He’s got a lot of discussions to have with his family and I told him we’ll stay in touch as we always do and we’ll see where he’s at.”

The 37-year-old Kendrick hit .275 with two homers and 14 RBIs in 25 games, and ended the season on the injured list with a left hamstring strain.

NATS AWARDS

Soto was named Washington’s player of the year and RHP Max Scherzer (5-4, 3.74 ERA) earned the team’s pitcher of the year award in voting by local media. LHP Sean Doolittle won his third consecutive Good Guy Award.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets: New York placed RHP Erasmo Ramirez (right groin tightness) on the injured list. Ramirez was 0-0 with an 0.63 ERA in six games. The Mets recalled RHP Corey Oswalt.

Nationals: OF Victor Robles was hit by a pitch in the second inning and was lifted for a defensive replacement in the third.

UP NEXT

Mets: New York opens its 2021 spring training schedule on Feb. 27 against Miami in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Nationals: Washington takes on Houston on Feb. 27 in West Palm Beach, Florida, in its scheduled 2021 spring training debut.