With their ace and probably the league MVP on the mound, the Dodgers fell behind two batters into the game. They rallied to give Kershaw a five-run lead, fired up after a benches-clearing incident when Yasiel Puig was hit by an Adam Wainwright pitch. They watched Kershaw implode again, then fought to the last pitch of the game against St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal, cutting a four-run deficit with two runs in the eighth and another in the ninth. The game ended with the tying run on third base on a Puig strikeout.
"With Kershaw on the mound, like everyone else in the stadium, I thought the game was over," left fielder Carl Crawford said.
Kershaw had never lost a game when given at least six runs of support. The Dodgers were so astonished over the result, they turned for inspiration to recent success over the rival Giants.
"We had two tough series against the Giants. We lost the first game both times," said catcher A.J. Ellis, who homered and had four hits. "The first time we got blown out. The second time we lost an extra-inning affair, and somehow we were able to rally and win the series. It's been our mantra all season long -- just win the series."
Kershaw said, "I'm not in shock," and maybe that's because he saw this original horror show last year when the Cardinals swamped him in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series. Friday night, like then, it was Matt Carpenter pulling off an amazing at-bat that helped turn Kershaw into a postseason losing pitcher.
Then it was an 11-pitch at-bat ending with a double that triggered a four-run third inning and led to a 9-0 elimination defeat. This time it was an eight-pitch at-bat for a bases-loaded double that keyed an eight-run avalanche in the seventh inning. Carpenter had already homered off Kershaw in his previous at-bat.
Kershaw was tough on himself.
"I feel terrible," said Kershaw, who still could pitch Game 4 or 5 of this series. "Who knows if they even want me to pitch at this point. It's an awful feeling to let your team down. They got me runs and I couldn't hold it. As a starting pitcher, it's your game to lose and I did. That's not a good feeling. We have a great team. If I don't get in the way, we have a good chance."
Kershaw, who had a one-hitter and five-run lead through 5 2/3 innings, was charged with eight runs, the most he's ever allowed at Dodger Stadium and one shy of his career worst. He's the first pitcher to give up seven runs in back-to-back postseason starts. He struck out 10 without a walk in 6 2/3 innings.
In last year's nightmare that ended the Dodgers' season, Kershaw allowed seven runs on 10 hits and some teammates believed the Cardinals stole signs or the pitcher tipped pitches from the stretch. Kershaw came into this season with an exaggerated glove wrap to hide the ball in the stretch, although he dismissed the pitch-tipping suggestion when it was raised again.
"I think that discredits their team," he said. "It's just a cop-out."
Kershaw retired 16 consecutive batters at one point, but lost it seemingly in an instant. He allowed five sharp singles and two runs in the seventh when manager Don Mattingly came to the mound, Kershaw's pitch count in 90-degree heat nearly 110. With uncertainty in the bullpen, however, Mattingly let the game's best pitcher continue with the bases loaded.
"Pretty easy decisions, actually," said Mattingly. "It's really hard to take Clayton out. Once he gets [Pete] Kozma, we're going to give him that's when I go out and check on him. [Oscar] Taveras, once he gets Taveras, I'm going to give him Carpenter."
Kershaw struck out pinch-hitter Taveras for the second out, but Carpenter ended a classic at-bat -- that began 0-2 and included five fouls -- by lining a 95-mph fastball to the right-center gap to clear the bases. During the onslaught, Kershaw went almost exclusively with fastballs.
In last year's Game 6, the Dodgers were blanked. The offense couldn't be blamed this time, as it scored nine runs on 16 hits, including two-run home runs by Ellis and Adrian Gonzalez. The good news for the Dodgers is they were just as successful against Wainwright as the Cardinals were against Kershaw.
"It was terrible. It was not good," Wainwright said of his outing.
Ellis, who hit .191 this year and battled injuries, was in no mood to talk about his offense.
"The last three innings I was second-guessing everything I did that at-bat," the catcher said. "It would have been nice to mix in some curveballs early in the count. Carpenter laid off a slider, fouled off tough pitches and one fastball leaked back over the plate and he did what an All-Star player does."
Rookie Pedro Baez relieved Kershaw in the seventh and served up a three-run homer to Matt Holliday that proved decisive. The eight-run inning was the most scored against the Dodgers in the postseason since St. Louis did it in 1985.