<
>

Friday preview: Is Clayton Kershaw's legacy on the line?

play
Kurkjian: DeGrom will shine, Kershaw a question mark (1:23)

ESPN baseball insider Tim Kurkjian joins Mike & Mike to share his expectations for Jacob DeGrom and Clayton Kershaw in the postseason. (1:23)

This is a great day, baseball friends: Four playoff games spread throughout the day, giving us 12 or 13 hours of postseason excitement -- and that's assuming none of the games goes extra innings.

The final game of the day will pit the New York Mets against the Los Angeles Dodgers out on the West Coast, with Clayton Kershaw starting the series opener for the Dodgers. Kershaw, of course, is the best pitcher of this generation, a man with three Cy Young Awards who enters the playoffs coming off perhaps the most dominant regular season of his career. Over his final 24 starts, he had a 1.39 ERA with 228 strikeouts in 174.1 innings. Good luck, Mets.

Kershaw's start is extra compelling because of his shaky playoff history. In his past three postseason starts, the Cardinals have beaten him three times, scoring 18 runs in 16.2 innings, and twice sending the Dodgers home by clinching the series against Kershaw. These results have created a sort of divide in the baseball community. The old-school types will argue that Kershaw has yet to prove he can pitch in a big game; the more analytic folks largely dismiss Kershaw's postseason performances as small-sample-size nonsense and point to his well-pitched games before these past three starts.

Look, I have strong distaste for those who paint the postseason as a sort of morality play about toughness and clutchness. On the other hand: You don't get time in the postseason for things to even out. You have to pitch well now because it is all about small sample size. And the bottom line is that Kershaw hasn't had his Madison Bumgarner moment of truth where he puts the team on his back. He hasn't even had a signature game like Jake Arrieta gave us on Wednesday night. In his six starts the past two postseason, he's gone more than six innings just once.

As Molly Knight wrote at Sports on Earth in her look back at Kershaw's postseason history, "Pitcher wins and losses don't mean much, except when you're the best pitcher of your generation and you lose elimination games, two years in a row, to the same godforsaken team in excruciating fashion, and have to spend 12 months dealing with hecklers and keyboard warriors calling you a choker when you are perhaps one of the most mentally tough athletes on the planet ..."

So, yes, Kershaw is the best pitcher on the planet. Now he has to prove he's the best postseason pitcher on the planet. Fair or not, that's his legacy heading into these playoffs. Molly believes Kershaw is ready. I think he's going to have that signature game ... or three.

A quick look at today's four games:

Texas Rangers (Cole Hamels) at Toronto Blue Jays (Marcus Stroman), 12:45 ET

The big news of this series centers on the injuries that knocked Adrian Beltre, Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista out of Thursday's opener. Donaldson and Bautista are in the Toronto lineup, but Beltre is out for Texas, a huge blow considering his production the final months, when he had 56 RBIs in 60 games.

The Rangers are sitting pretty after winning Game 1 and are now coming back with their ace in Game 2. Though the Blue Jays have that fearsome right-handed middle of the lineup, with Donaldson, Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Russell Martin, Hamels' changeup helps neutralize right-handed batters. Over the past five seasons, his OPS allowed is basically identical when facing hitters on both sides. His results with the Rangers (a 3.66 ERA) have been solid, but he seems to have the magic touch. Hamels has won seven games in a row and the Rangers have won each of his past 10 starts. Given his postseason experience, he's not going to be rattled by the raucous Toronto crowd.

Look for Texas manager Jeff Banister to once again rely on Keone Kela, Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson out of the pen in the late innings. Those three averaged 97.8 mph while throwing four innings in Game 1. Regular closer Shawn Tolleson will also be available.

Stroman missed almost the entire regular season after tearing up his knee in spring training, but made such a rapid recovery that he was able to start four times in the final month, when he went 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA. He's a six-pitch guy -- yes, six -- with a fastball in the low 90s, keeps the ball down and is awesomely fun to watch.

Houston Astros (Scott Kazmir) at Kansas City Royals (Johnny Cueto), 3:45 ET

Through July, these were two of the best pitchers in baseball. Kazmir, who had made two scoreless starts for the Astros after coming over from the A’s on July 23, was 6-5 but had a 2.10 ERA. Cueto, acquired from the Reds on July 26, was 7-6 with a 2.70 ERA. Then both fell apart. Cueto threw a shutout for the Royals in his home debut on August 10, but has had a 5.76 ERA since, with a deteriorating strikeout rate (just 39 in 59.1 innings). Kazmir's struggles have been less documented, but -- similar to last year -- he tired down the stretch, going 1-6 with a 5.22 ERA over the final two months of the regular season.

Frankly, I'm a little surprised Kazmir drew the start over rookie Lance McCullers Jr. or Mike Fiers. Kazmir got knocked out before the fifth inning in four of his six September starts and allowed eight home runs the final month after giving up just 12 during the first five. Maybe Astros manager A.J. Hinch figures that won't be as much of an issue in Kansas City, which is why he's starting Kazmir in Game 2 instead of at home. Regardless, expect it to be a short stint for Kazmir even if he's pitching well, with Fiers ready to come out of the pen in long relief.

For Cueto, the pressure is certainly on his shoulders. The ace-for-rent hasn't pitched like a No. 1 guy, and the Royals can't afford to go down 0-2 and then face Dallas Keuchel at Minute Maid Park, where he's 15-0. Keep an eye on how Cueto pitches to Colby Rasmus, who has homered in the Astros' first two playoff games, both on first pitches. FYI: Teams that win the first game of a best-of-5 series win the series 72 percent of the time.

Chicago Cubs (Jon Lester) at St. Louis Cardinals (John Lackey), 6:45 ET

Following Arrieta's wild-card game shutout, the Cubs have won nine in a row. They're 46-18 since July 29. The Cardinals won 100 games, but many favor the Cubs in the series, even with Arrieta likely to only make one start.

Part of that is because most of the St. Louis rotation struggled down the stretch, and Carlos Martinez has been shut down for the season. Lackey, the veteran who turns 37 later this month, is the one guy who pitched well during the final month. In fact, since June 15, he has a 2.26 ERA and has allowed more than two runs just four times in 21 starts. The Cardinals do have a deep and effective bullpen as well, so manager Mike Matheny doesn't have to -- and shouldn’t -- rely on his starters to go deep into games.

The Cardinals won the season series 11-8, but the Cubs won four out of six in September. The rivalry also might have heated up a bit after Joe Maddon's comments on Sept. 18, when Starlin Castro hit two home runs -- the second one in which he lovingly admired before rounding the bases -- and Anthony Rizzo was then hit by a pitch. After the game, Maddon mocked the so-called Cardinals Way: "I never read this book the Cardinals wrote way back in the day regarding how to play baseball. ... You can take that book and read it yourself, because I don't give a crap about that book. I want everyone there to understand we don't start stuff but we stop stuff."

Bring it on.

New York Mets (Jacob deGrom) at Los Angeles Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw), 9:45

One of the best things about this postseason is that seven of the eight teams have history to overcome: We know about the Cubs, but the Blue Jays haven't won since 1993, the Royals since 1985 and the Astros and Rangers have never won a World Series. These two big-market clubs have certainly had their playoff failures as well. The Mets haven't won the World Series since 1986 and the Dodgers since 1988. Since then, the Dodgers have played in eight postseasons without reaching the World Series. Nobody considers them a snakebit franchise, but they haven't had any good fortune in the playoffs since Orel Hershiser's magical ride.

This should be a low-scoring series with all the high-powered pitching. It could come down to the bullpens, and though both teams have reliable closers -- Jeurys Familia and Kenley Jansen -- the other guys on both teams are a little less certain. deGrom has allowed two runs or fewer in 22 of his 30 starts; he might need to make that a zero to win this one.