"How does it feel? What do you think? Not good. That's about as far as I'll go," Kershaw said after losing Game 4 when Matt Adams hit a three-run, seventh inning homer to sink the Dodgers and Kershaw for the second time in five days.
To put it all into perspective, Kershaw allowed only nine earned runs in his last seven starts of the regular season. He had three losses all season, two over a span of 11 days in May and another in August. He was 18-1 in his last 19 decisions, including wins in his final seven starts, a Major League-leading 21 overall.
With the playoffs coming and Kershaw seemingly fresher than last year after missing five weeks in April because of a muscle strain under his left arm, there was just no inkling that any of this was coming. Inclusive of last year's 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in the deciding Game 6 of the NLCS, Kershaw has allowed 18 earned runs in his last three postseason starts for an 8.67 ERA. He's 0-4 in the last two postseasons against St. Louis. Compare and contrast. His Major League-leading ERA this past regular season was 1.77.
Kershaw bemoaned the circumstances.
"The season ended and I'm a big part of the reason why," Kershaw said. "It doesn't matter how I pitched. It's bad deja vu all over again. I felt we had a really good chance to win. I'm thankful we got here and hope to be back."
His two NLDS starts were similar in so many ways. On Friday night at Dodger Stadium, he had a four-run lead and was pitching a two-hitter when he went into the seventh inning and fell apart. The Cardinals pelted him for five singles and Matt Carpenter's bases-loaded, bases-clearing double. When the smoke cleared, they had scored eight runs and led, 10-6, in a game they eventually won, 10-9.
On Tuesday, Kershaw pitched with three days' rest for the second consecutive NLDS. This time he carried a one-hitter into the seventh and for the second time just around the 100-pitch mark he again began to struggle.
Here was manager Don Mattingly's strategy heading into the fateful seventh:
"He felt good. In talking with him and getting the answer that we always try to get from him, we knew it was a three-hitter situation. We knew it wasn't going to be a 20-, 25-pitch inning. We knew it was going to be three hitters."
Unlike Friday, when Kershaw allowed four consecutive singles and nobody was even warming up in the bullpen, this time Mattingly said he had Pedro Baez warming up and ready to face Yadier Molina, the fourth hitter in the inning. Matt Holliday singled off second baseman Dee Gordon's glove. Jhonny Peralta singled off shortstop Hanley Ramirez's glove. And Adams hit an 0-1 curve on a line just above the right-field fence and into the Cardinals' bullpen to decide the game and the series.
Kershaw was taken out, again deflated. Mattingly defended his decision to again start the seventh inning with a potentially fatigued Kershaw, whose pitches were up in the strike zone at the end.
"You had to look at Clayton, where he was at, the way he was feeling, the way he was kind of cruising along," Mattingly said. "So I don't think anything right there changes a whole lot. It goes back to the same question: is there anybody better, even on short rest, and even where he was at, at that point? I mean, Holliday hits the ball barely out of reach of Dee, Peralta hits the ball and it hits off Hanley's glove, and then he hangs a curveball there. One bad pitch. So at the end of the day, I think it's not really a situation that you try to change too much or manipulate too much."
Last year in their NLDS against the Braves, Mattingly had designated Ricky Nolasco as his Game 4 starter, but after the Dodgers went up 2-1 in the series at home, he opted to use Kershaw on three days' rest to wrap up the series. Kershaw pitched the first six innings, leaving with the score tied 2-2. The Dodgers won 4-3 on Juan Uribe's eighth-inning, two-run homer.
But there's a big difference between this year and last October. Kershaw opened that series at Atlanta by pitching seven innings of one-run, three-hit ball as the Dodgers won Game 1, 6-1. That turns out to be his last postseason victory. Even in his best game of the last two postseasons against the Cardinals, Kershaw pitched six innings of two-hit ball in Game 2 right here and lost, 1-0, to then rookie Michael Wacha. The Cardinals appear to have his number.
"I've had success against them, too," said Kershaw, who is 5-5 with a 3.46 ERA in 15 regular-season starts against the Cardinals. "It seems like one inning every time. Obviously, that's not success. I feel I have the ability to get them out. They're a good team and they just beat me. I don't think they do anything major. They just get hits."
Not many of them, but certainly enough.