It's easy to forget now that Clayton Kershaw retired 16 batters in a row, between a Randal Grichuk home run in the first inning and Matt Carpenter's home run in the sixth. That for 16 batters, he looked like Clayton Kershaw, best pitcher on the planet, likely Cy Young and MVP winner, king of the hill, the new Koufax.
Maybe the two home runs were a bit of a concern, especially since the Grichuk home run was basically a stone-cold fluke, hit just over the wall down the left-field line off an 0-2 curveball, golfed out off his feet. Kershaw had allowed just one home run on 0-2 pitch over the past two seasons. So fluke, luck -- it happens.
And then Carpenter crushed one. OK, that doesn't happen too often. Kershaw allowed two home runs in a game just once this season, to the Brewers on Aug. 16. Kershaw went 18-1 over his final 21 starts; that 3-2 loss to the Brewers was his only defeat.
Still, Kershaw took a 6-2 lead into the seventh inning, having thrown 81 pitches. Things looked good. Dodgers fans were making jokes about Adam Wainwright having started the All-Star Game instead of Kershaw. The Cardinals were last in the National League in home runs, ninth in the league in runs. It's not a good offensive team. Heck, Pete Kozma was batting seventh.
Then came one of the more remarkable innings you'll see in postseason baseball. Five thoughts/highlights/comments ...
1. Four hits in a row to start the inning.
Clayton Kershaw is 1st pitcher in MLB history to allow 7+ runs in back-to-back postseason games
— Katie Sharp (@ktsharp) October 4, 2014
Kershaw had nine starts on the season in which he allowed fewer than four hits. Maybe that should have been the first sign that something was wrong. There were no flares, gorks, ground balls with eyes or dying quails in the bunch. Still, nobody seemed too concerned at that point, especially after Kershaw struck out Kozma.
2. Jon Jay singled to left to make it 6-4.
Hard to fault Mattingly for going all-in with Kershaw -- but after 5 hits already, headed to 110 pitches on very hot day? #regmlb
— Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) October 4, 2014
Jay singled sharply to left. Another hard hit. Maybe the weather was a factor? Game-time temperature was 96 degrees. On an earlier telecast, John Smoltz, who knows a thing or two about pitching in the postseason, said every two innings in a postseason game is like one inning of a regular season -- the adrenaline, the focus, the pressure, the intensity, everything is amped up.
There was a meeting at the mound. Oscar Taveras hit for the pitcher and struck out on three pitches. Leadoff hitter Carpenter stepped up. Kershaw was at 21 pitches for the inning, 101 for the game. It was hot. But there were two outs and it's Clayton Kershaw.
3. The at-bat of the year.
Matt Carpenter could have a 20-year career. This will be his best day.
— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) October 4, 2014
Well, I don't know if it was the at-bat of the year. But it was an amazing at-bat, given the importance of the situation.
Quick timeout: A year ago, in Game 6 of the NLCS, Kershaw started against the Cardinals, trying to extend the series to a seventh game. Tied 0-0 in the third, Carpenter dueled Kershaw for 11 pitches before he finally doubled, jump-starting a four-run rally.
Back to 2014. Two outs, bases loaded, Dodgers up 6-4. This was clearly Kershaw's final batter. The pitch sequence: 95 fouled off, 95 swing and a miss, 94 fouled off, slider in the dirt, slider way up, 94 fouled off, slider fouled off, 95 fastball over the plate and crushed into right-center for a bases-clearing double.
This is what Carpenter does. He battles, waits, fouls off pitches. Among qualified batters this season, he had the third-highest pitchers-per-plate-appearance in the majors.
Was Kershaw fatigued? Perhaps so. His fastballs were all up, still with good velocity but straight and hittable.
4. Kershaw was tipping his pitches or the Cardinals were stealing signs.
Harold Reynolds brought this up on the broadcast, that maybe the Cardinals runners at second base were reading the signs. Former major leaguer Marlon Anderson suggested Kershaw was tipping his pitches from the stretch. With Carpenter seemingly reading every pitch -- fastball or slider, even the foul balls had good rips -- and considering the earlier contact against him, it certainly smells reasonable, whether it was coming from the baserunners or from Kershaw.
Two stats from the regular season, however:
With the bases empty, Kershaw allowed a .224 wOBA; with men on, he allowed a .238 wOBA. So not enough of a difference to suggest tipping pitches has been an ongoing problem for him. Which doesn't mean he wasn't doing it in this game or that the Cardinals have something figured out on him.
Or maybe it was just random variance, that these things can happen, even to the best pitchers in the game, especially on nights in which it was over 100 degrees on the field and his pitch count had gone over 100.
Thing is: When you're the best pitcher in the game, you're not allowed variance in a game of magnitude.
5. Matt Holliday's home run.
Ridiculous and lovely.
— Dayn Perry (@daynperry) October 4, 2014
Clayton Kershaw now with more 7+ run games this year than Hector Noesi
— Jeff Sullivan (@based_ball) October 4, 2014
Holliday hit a three-run homer off Pedro Baez, completing the eight-run inning. These were runs that mattered in the end when the Dodgers cut the score to 10-9 before Trevor Rosenthal finally blew a 99 mph fastball past Yasiel Puig with the tying run on the third for the final out.