NEW YORK -- The bottom of the seventh inning came and went in a New York minute, faster than a speeding bullet or Mookie sprinting first to third. Compared to the 13 half-innings that had preceded it and the four that would follow, it was a blur, requiring merely eight pitches. For the Mets, it was quick and painful. For the Dodgers, it was peaceful and reassuring.
As the Mets took their positions in the top of the eighth Tuesday night in Game 4 of the National League Division Series at Citi Field, David Wright, Yoenis Cespedes and the others understood they had whiffed; not on a fastball or slider served up by Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, but they had swung and missed at Kershaw's vulnerability.
The seventh inning had been the opportune time to act, the opportune time to attack with bats and to use psychological warfare against the man Terry Collins had identified earlier in the day as "the best pitcher in the game." It was time, not because of anything the Mets had done or any sign of weakness or fatigue on the part of the Dodgers pitcher, but because of something Kershaw seldom had done -- survive the seventh inning in a postseason start.
That deficiency was the large, grotesque pimple on the nose of Kershaw's otherwise splendid career, as conspicuous as the decades without a World Series championship on the North Side of Chicago or all the summers Don Mattingly had played without a World Series appearance.
Kershaw hadn't been merely unsuccessful or ineffective in his October sevenths, he had pitched poorly, dreadfully, horribly and worse in that singular circumstance. And that is no seventh-inning stretch. He had endured more Waterloo moments in seventh innings than Napoleon had suffered in battles 200 years ago.
He had pitched into the seventh in nine postseason starts and worked merely three innings -- total. He had surrendered 12 hits (in 19 at-bats) and allowed 12 runs, all earned. Opponents had batted .632 against him. His ERA in the seventh was -- honest -- 36.00. He had faced 24 batters and retired eight, one on a sacrifice bunt.
Kershaw didn't need to peer into a mirror to know how conspicuous that nasty pimple had become.
And now he was on the mound in the seventh inning in a must-win game for the Dodgers. His team had a 3-1 lead in runs; its opponent had a 2-1 lead in games in a best-of-five series. It was the bottom of the seventh, and Kershaw was pitching from the stretch, that exaggerated and elongated stretch that distinguishes him from almost every other pitcher in the game.
The stretch was required because Cespedes had led off the inning with an infield single, a lightly struck ground ball that had bounced parallel to the third base line, off Kershaw's glove and toward a Mets' comeback. If ever the self-fulfilling prophecy could have attacked the Dodgers' pitcher, it was at that instant. The unseen hand that often dictates which team survives had favored the Mets -- at least for one play.
If the Citi Field fans were as slick as they like to think they are, they would have chanted "Sev-enth in-ning, sev-enth in-ning" in that annoying sing-song manner first graders use and allowed their target to make the connection. Or they might have gone silent save for one throat clearing sound from behind the plate: "Ahem. Ahem."
Choke, the term players hate and one that rarely should be applied could have been chanted, though such tactics probably would have had no effect. For this was the night in a potential elimination game that Kershaw eliminated much of the unwanted October baggage that someday might have cluttered the path he is likely to take to Cooperstown. He was up to the challenge.
Not that he acknowledged any of his past failures. "I don't know. I mean I don't know," he said when the topic of his seventh-inning history was broached in the aftermath of his second victory in eight postseason decisions. "Glad I did it [win], I guess. I mean there's no curse or anything. Just gotta get through the seventh."
What are we to make of that?
Chris Hatcher was on the mound when the Mets batted in the eighth. Kershaw had made the seventh a clinic in pitching with a lead and using his opponents' aggressiveness against them. The three-time Cy Young Award winner demonstrated how Cy Young Awards, not to mention tight games, are won.
He threw six more pitches to achieve three outs. The first was a 90-mph slider to Travis d'Arnaud. The Mets catcher fouled it off. A 94-mph fastball begat a pop that first baseman Adrian Gonzalez handled without issue in foul territory. Lucas Duda swung at the first pitch, an 89-mph slider, and flied out to center. And dry-eyed Wilmer Flores took two 94-mph pitches for balls and grounded out to third.
There. Done. No strikeouts -- Kershaw had eight in the first six innings -- no muss, no fuss, no more layers of seventh-inning taint. With 94 pitches, 62 of them strikes, Kershaw had demonstrated why Mattingly had smirked Monday after being asked "Who's starting Game 4 and why?" The manager's reply was a tad incredulous. "Do I have to explain?"
Not then nor now, not after a performance that had assured Chavez Ravine of a place on the postseason map and itinerary for at least two more days.
So now, this Mets season and the odds against the NL East champions have become longer, and the trip the Mets face Wednesday morning is almost as long as the faces they wore as they trudged off the Citi Field lawn. The Dodgers, on the strength of a more characteristic performance by Kershaw, appear closer to Chicago than do the Mets. And that juxtaposition has nothing to do with geography.
Game 5 will decide who moves on, Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on TBS.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.