Clayton Kershaw was scratched from his Game 2 start in the NLCS on Tuesday as his balky back acted up again. Kershaw has dealt with persistent back issues since the 2014 season and opened the 2020 campaign on the injured list after reinjuring it. Now it has flared up in the postseason and it's just the latest example of how Kershaw has been unreliable in the playoffs during his 13-year career.
Kershaw is arguably the greatest regular season pitcher of his generation, but his struggles in October are well-documented. Despite a dazzling regular season ERA of 2.43 and a WHIP of 1.00 to go along with a 175-76 record, he's never matched that level of performance in the playoffs. His career record in the postseason is 11-11 with a 4.23 ERA and a WHIP of 1.07 in 34 games (27 starts). But those numbers get worse the deeper he goes into the playoffs.
In the NLDS, Kershaw's ERA is 6-4 with a 4.02 ERA in 15 games (13 starts), but in the NLCS he's 3-5 with a 4.61 ERA in 13 games and nine starts. And in the World Series, Kershaw has been abysmal, posting a 1-2 record with a 5.40 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP in five games (four starts). Additionally, his ERA when facing elimination (5.77) is the second-worst in major league history for individuals who have thrown at least 20 innings. Tim Wakefield holds the record at 6.75.
Perhaps more than the cumulative numbers, it's Kershaw's meltdowns in key spots that have been so noteworthy. It happened as recently as Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS. Kershaw entered that game in relief and surrendered back-to-back home runs that allowed the Washington Nationals to tie things a 3-3 in the top of the eighth. The Nats would go on to win the game, series and eventually the World Series.
In Game 5 of the 2018 World Series Kershaw was called on with his team facing elimination against the Boston Red Sox. He went seven innings but served up three homers, as he gave up seven hits and four total runs. That line included a home run by now-teammate Mookie Betts. The Dodgers lost to the Red Sox 5-1 and watched Boston celebrate a championship at Dodger Stadium.
After pitching brilliantly in Game 1 of the 2017 World Series, Kershaw was lit up for six earned runs by the Houston Astros in Game 5. He only lasted 4.2 innings and the trash can-banging 'Stros won 13-12 in 10 innings. They went on the beat the Dodgers in seven games to hoist the trophy.
Facing elimination in Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS, the Dodgers called on Kershaw to rescue them and he couldn't. He lasted only five innings, and gave up five runs on seven hits including home runs by Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs won the series and wound up winning their first World Series since 1908.
That's four straight years Kershaw has turned in a clunker against the team that went on to win the World Series. In three of those years he pitched poorly in an elimination game the Dodgers lost. There are a litany of other postseason meltdowns I could point to, including the 2013 NLCS and the 2014 and 2015 NLDS. It's been incredibly hard to watch such a great player fail so many times in big moments.
In 2020 the Dodgers are overwhelming favorites to finally take home their first World Series title since 1988. After his team lost Game 1 of the NLCS to the Atlanta Braves, Kershaw has been pulled from Game 2 due to injury. While he is undoubtedly a first-ballot Hall of Famer and probably the greatest of his era, Los Angeles simply has not been able to count on its ace in the postseason.
For the Dodgers to finally break their World Series drought, Kershaw needs to be on the mound and effective. He's never proven he can do that when it matters most.