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.