Dejected and helpless, Clayton Kershaw cut what has become an eerily comforting and familiar postseason image. From a not-so-uncomfortable but all-too-familiar location: the bench.
Yanked by manager Dave Roberts only after being left in too long yet again, he stared a 3-1 NLCS deficit in the face, almost numb to the pain at this point. It seemed that the future Hall of Famer had squandered yet another opportunity to rewrite the heavy narrative that hangs around his cleats with every leg kick. Worse, it seemed that the Los Angeles Dodgers' quest for a long-elusive World Series crown would end prematurely and without satisfaction. That Kershaw was fated to continue chasing a ghost, perhaps never coming closer to realizing the dream.
Then baseball happened. The Dodgers, without their ace, mounted a stunning three-game comeback to earn a World Series berth. Kershaw, once relegated to a euphoric bystander, will take center stage in Game 1 as he strides to the mound and stands tall. His hopes should be high and his confidence bursting at every seam. The southpaw with new life has been granted another opportunity to slay the dragon, to murder the vengeful monkey that's been riding on his back for years.
Make no mistake. There's more at stake than usurping control of a seven-game series at stake tonight. Kershaw's legacy may very well be decided based on his performance. Especially if a Game 5 start goes by the wayside in the form of a sweep either way. He may be the greatest lefthander since Sandy Koufax, but he'll be remembered by the 12 or 13 or 15, or, gulp, seven innings he throws this Fall Classic.
Fair or otherwise, this is the reality.
Kershaw, like so many transformative athletes, is a Rorshach test. People can choose to look at the totality of his work and bask in his greatness. In 2,333 regular-season innings, he's built an unimpeachable resume. He carries a sparkling 2.43 ERA and is the active leader in win percentage, shutouts, ERA+, WHIP, H/9, and HR/9. In 177.1 postseason innings, he's done a lot to impeach — or at the very least — complicate that resume. An 11-12 record, 4.31 ERA, and handfuls of missed, golden opportunities cannot be forgotten.
So let's tackle the elephant in the room. There is no defending this Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde act. The playoff failures are what they are: a major component in assessing who Kershaw is and what he'll be in the history books. And that stuff matters in baseball, a sport obsessed with numbers long before the NBA tried to put a trademark on hot takes and ring-counting and exposing once-heroes as frauds.
But it's not all that matters. People discounting Kershaw and — worse — denying themselves and others an honest appreciation of otherworldly greatness are not looking at the whole picture. Things are always more complicated and nuanced than they appear at first blush and digging through the box scores of postseasons past reveals that the lefthander has not singlehandedly kept his team from reaching the promised land. In fact, with some more timely hitting from his offensive compatriots, this wouldn't be a discussion at all as he'd have at least one ultimate, golden bauble on his finger.
Kershaw has no comparison across sports because baseball isn't like other sports. LeBron James or James Harden could not go a full series shooting, say 26 percent. Patrick Mahomes isn't going to complete 37 percent of his passes in the Super Bowl and be benched. Baseball is beautiful because it is random and unpredictable and on any given day an average player can outdo an all-time great. It is foolish to diminish the all-time great in this scenario instead of elevating the average performer who elevated their game.
Now, all of these big, enlightened opinions distilled into a primal one. I'm sick and tired of uncritical thinkers waving their hands and dismissing Kershaw. I want it to end. I want him to be the best he can be and authoritatively banish the narrative back to the sewer to which it belongs.
Baseball is a game of failure and he's failed often. But we keep playing it in hopes there will be success at the end of a tunnel of indeterminate length. A man who has been a consummate pro and handled big-stage losses with great class and dignity deserves his redemptive arc.
There is no shame in rooting for Kershaw. Like an actor who has brought us so much joy through the years, he deserves his lifetime achievement award. For people to reflect on how they've had blinders on to his greatness. To have their specious, surface-deep arguments dismantled. For him to stop chasing a ghost and hold something more tangible.