ST. LOUIS -- The Los Angeles Dodgers went out with their best, who went out with his worst.
Nothing about Friday night's 9-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals was particularly stunning other than the sight of the best pitcher in a generation, Clayton Kershaw, turning his head over and over and watching line drives and sharp grounders skid across the outfield grass and bounce into the outfield corners. You could argue it wouldn't have mattered, because the Dodgers didn't score against Michael Wacha or the St. Louis bullpen, which pretty much summed up the 2013 National League Championship Series.
But this was an almost-otherworldly scene. Watching a team bat around in an inning just isn't something in the Kershaw playbook. Contrition just isn't in the Kershaw playbook either, or is it just that we've had so little opportunity to test it?
"This one's on me," Kershaw said.
In about a month, barring a voting error by the baseball writers, they'll announce he has won his second Cy Young award in three seasons and you could argue he should have had the third. He has led the major leagues in ERA three straight seasons. He proved those early foibles in the postseason -- when he was 20 and 21 years old -- were anomalies by posting a 0.47 ERA in his three October starts coming into Friday.
All of which leaves the Dodgers' ace where, exactly, as he embarks on an offseason that could land him a record contract, that could cement his bearded face as that of the franchise?
"There's a pretty good chance he's going to win the Cy Young next year, too, just because of the anger," Dodgers utility man Skip Schumaker said. "He's going to be all right."
That might be, probably will, but Kershaw didn't look all right in the bitter aftermath of his worst start in more than three years. After bad starts, he always sounds ticked off, giving clipped answers to questions and sometimes ignoring them entirely. There was some of that Friday night, but he also sounded like a man dealing with the guilt of an entire organization and fan base thinking he was infallible right before he was his most fallible. It had nothing to do with going on three days' rest in the previous round, he said. He had no idea why he couldn't put hitters away. He just didn't have it.
"It's hard when you know guys have worked so hard to get here. I wanted to win it for them," Kershaw said.
Instead, the Dodgers fell into a 4-0 hole when the Cardinals batted around in the third inning, the first time that had happened to Kershaw since an August 2009 game in Arizona. Of his 81 pitches to get through three innings, 48 of them came in that third. In all six innings of Game 2, Kershaw needed 72 pitches. That tells you a lot about a resilient, democratic St. Louis lineup that seemed to gain confidence from Matt Carpenter's 11-pitch at-bat and double that inning.
But what does it tell us about Kershaw? What does it tell us about the Dodgers' reliance on him?
"We expect perfection out of somebody. It just didn't happen tonight," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "There's nobody you feel better about to go out and pitch a game than Clayton Kershaw."
That, in fact, is exactly why the Dodgers were feeling good about things while they flew halfway across the country Thursday afternoon, to go play in a stadium that yields very few wins for opposing teams. Yes, they had squandered huge opportunities in the first two games and been outplayed most of the series, but they had the best pitcher in the game on the mound in the game that could have pushed the series to seven games. You never know what's going to happen in a winner-take-all.
Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said Kershaw looked sharp in the bullpen. He looked as merciless as usual getting through the first two innings with three strikeouts. Even in the third, he wasn't missing by much, but he missed by millimeters repeatedly and that can be just as dangerous. Carlos Beltran hit a fastball that leaked over the middle of the plate. Yadier Molina stayed up the middle on a backdoor slider and pushed it into center field. These weren't dramatic happenings, nothing like the majesty of Matt Holliday's home run off Ricky Nolasco or the monster blasts the Dodgers hit in Game 5.
But they were Kershaw's undoing. The Cardinals essentially needled him to death. It's what they do. They have a lineup built to bother aces. It just finally showed up.
One game isn't going to change the Dodgers' opinion of their ace, but it will color their appreciation for him. The greatest pitchers make their careers in the regular season and then polish their legacies in the postseason. You've got to figure these will be trying weeks, maybe months, for Kershaw as he thinks about that last memory on the mound, manager Don Mattingly's coming to get the ball from him before he'd gotten an out in the fifth inning.
You couldn't tell whether Kershaw had just pitched eight shutout innings or been knocked around. He just looked straight ahead and marched to the dugout. There were no visible tantrums when he got there.
Somebody offered Kershaw a lifeline, reminded him that one bad game doesn't tarnish an exciting Dodgers season, one which fell just two games shy of the World Series. He wasn't having it.
"It kind of does," Kershaw said. "What does it really matter if you're in the playoffs or coming in last place if you don't win the World Series? It doesn't really matter."
The Dodgers have a rare athlete on their hands. Kershaw has no intermediate goals. He has to be the best pitcher on the planet and his team has to win the World Series. Otherwise, what's the point?
That's great, except when neither thing happens, where do you go from there?