The disaster unfolded in slow motion. Ronald Acuña’s chopper bouncing over Clayton Kershaw’s outstretched glove. Acuña reaching first base, followed by an injury delay during which the outfielder’s left wrist was examined by a trainer. Acuña taking second base because Kiké Hernandez’s throw on the infield single bounced down a set of stairs leading to the Dodgers clubhouse. Acuña scoring on a double to right by Freddie Freeman.
By the time Marcell Ozuna was stepping into the batter’s box, anyone familiar with Kershaw’s postseason history could sense what was about to happen.
Another run-scoring double, this one into the vacant space in left-center field.
And this when Kershaw departed the game, his team down by two runs in the sixth inning and his head bowed in defeat. The Dodgers were on their way to a 10-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves, which moved them to within a game of elimination in this National League Championship Series.
Kershaw was the pitcher of record, but this setback wasn’t entirely on him.
This was on the Dodgers offense, which couldn’t score against a 22-year-old pitcher with a career ERA of 5.91.
This was also on Andrew Friedman, the president of baseball operations who constructed a bullpen so unreliable that Kershaw had to be kept in to pitch to Ozuna one too many times.
When Freeman doubled in Acuña, the Dodgers’ deficit was still manageable at 2-1.
Ozuna had homered in his previous at-bat, launching a rocket over the left-field wall that leveled the score at 1-1 in the fourth inning.
Many heartbroken observers almost certainly directed their anger at manager Dave Roberts, who has become the preferred scapegoat of a championship-thirsty fan base.
But consider what rookie Brusdar Graterol did when he replaced Kershaw. He turned the 3-1 deficit into an insurmountable 7-1 climb.
Hard to argue that sending in Graterol to pitch to Ozuna was the right call.
Roberts had plenty of options, but none of them were any good. Friedman sent him into a gunfight with a cartridge full of blanks.
As well as the bullpen performed in the pandemic-shortened regular season, the reality was that the Dodgers played only 13 games against the teams with winning records.
Come the postseason, every one of their high-leverage relievers let them down, with the possible exception of left-hander Victor González.
With Ozuna up and the Dodgers down 2-1, Roberts didn’t have a dependable right-hander to whom he could turn.
Kenley Jansen lost his place as the team’s closer in the previous round against the San Diego Padres.
Blake Treinen was the losing pitcher in Game 1 of this NLCS.
Pedro Báez didn’t pitch well in Game 2.
With choices like that, it’s little wonder Roberts said of the Ozuna at-bat in the sixth inning, “I felt really good with Clayton at that point in time.”
The situation was reminiscent of Kershaw’s unpleasant October moment of a year ago, when Kershaw served up consecutive home runs to Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto in a relief appearance against the Washington Nationals in Game 5 of a NL Division Series.
Roberts was criticized then, too, for sending Kershaw back to the mound in the eighth inning after he recorded a key out in the seventh. But the bullpen of that team was also shaky, which explains why the erratic Joe Kelly was on the mound in the ninth and 10th innings.
These are part of a pattern that emerges when reviewing the entirety of Kershaw’s postseason track record.
Kershaw would never say this, but he isn’t a choker as much as he is a victim — a victim of his team’s circumstances.
His earliest playoff calamities came in Octobers in which he tried to compensate for his team’s lack of rotation depth by pitching on three days’ rest. He did this every year from 2013 to 2016, succumbing to fatigue each time.
Now, in the last two seasons, he’s paid dearly for the organization’s shortcomings in the bullpen.
If the Dodgers fail to advance to the World Series, the responsibility will fall to them to do something they’ve rarely done for him in the 13 seasons he has worn their uniform.
They will have to back him not only with the right hitters, but also the right pitchers.
<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Dylan Hernández reported from Los Angeles.» data-reactid=»109″>Dylan Hernández reported from Los Angeles.
<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.» data-reactid=»110″>This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.