Clayton Kershaw's Game 5 Breakdown

by Tyler Young

Every time Clayton Kershaw struggles in the postseason, a familiar narrative is made new again. “He can’t get it done in the big game. He’s a regular season pitcher.” The truth is that even future Hall of Famers, like Kershaw, have bad games. When those games will happen is random. Unfortunately, for the Dodgers lefty, too many of those poor starts have come in October. But if Kershaw puts together a few more outings like he did in Game Five of this year’s NLCS, those critics could quickly fall by the wayside.

This postseason had gotten off on the wrong foot for Kershaw. First, he was passed over by his manager to start Game One of the NLDS. Then, after kicking off Game 1 of the NLCS, he pitched poorly, allowing four earned runs over just three innings of work. This week’s Game Five had the chance to be a turning point in both Kershaw’s post season career and the Dodgers World Series hopes.

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Los Angeles’ ace stepped up to the challenge, throwing seven frames and allowing just one run on three hits, two walks and nine strikeouts. The nine strikeouts are the most he has had in a game since mid-April, when he struck out 12. It’s no secret that the 30-year-old no longer has the high-90s fastball, which has made punch outs harder to come by. Instead, he needs to throw the whole toolbox at hitters to keep them off-balance. That’s exactly what he did on Wednesday night.

Kershaw made it through the Brewers lineup nearly three complete times during his outing. He had three offerings the whole night: four-seam fastball, slider, curveball. This is nothing new. He abandoned his changeup in the middle of the regular season because he was unable to create enough of a velocity difference between it and his fastball, limiting its effectiveness.

During his first trip through the order, he started eight of the nine hitters with fastballs. Ryan Braun was the outlier, receiving a slider. Establishing the fastball as a legitimate option early in a game remains important for Kershaw, despite its reduced velocity. It’s a set-up pitch for the remainder of the game. Even still, he needs to locate the four-seamer. When he is unable to do so, it leads to trouble.

He served up two hits the first time he faced the Milwaukee hitters, singles by Lorenzo Cain and Orlando Arcia. Both hit fastballs that were left over the plate. The Arcia hit, followed by a five-pitch walk to the opposing pitcher, turned the lineup over for the first time on the night.

Photo credit: Aaron Sholl on VisualHunt / CC BY-ND

This is when Kerhsaw began to use his slider more, but it lacked bite early on. Cain smacked a 1-0 slider to centerfield to score Arcia. It was a poor breaking ball that came in about thigh high on the outer-third of the plate to Cain, one of Milwaukee’s best hitters. From there, Kershaw refined the delivery.

He got himself out of trouble that inning with a pair of strikeouts, both on sliders. He sat down left-handed Christian Yelich on a pitch on the outer limit of the strike zone and ended the inning on a slider down and in to the right-handed Jesus Aguilar after an epic 8 pitch AB.

Kershaw faced 12 more hitters on the day and threw 44 pitches, only 11 of which were fastballs. He became more of a slider/curveball pitcher to close out his game. The threat of the fastball was enough to keep hitters on the defensive.

The reason for this is because Kershaw’s slider is extremely effective. According to Brooks Baseball, he has almost an identical release point for his slider and his four-seamer. Hitters think they are getting a (relatively) straight pitch with mediocre velocity. Instead, they get a sharp breaking ball that dives into righties and away from lefties. By the time hitters recognize the spin of the slider, it’s too late, They have already committed.

These individual performances likely do little to quiet those that still think Kershaw lacks the “clutch” gene. But it does push the Dodgers one step closer to winning a World Series, one of the few trophies that the three-time Cy Young winner does not have, at least not yet.