Why NLCS Game 6 comes down to one thing -- Kershaw vs. Rizzo

Clayton Kershaw had more hits in Game 2 of the NLCS than Anthony Rizzo did. Jon Durr/USA TODAY Sports

Among the reasons to like baseball is the "Awesome People Hanging Out Together" aspect of it. I could watch Clayton Kershaw pitch all day, I could watch Anthony Rizzo hit forever, and guess what, folks: Watch just a little bit of baseball and eventually you'll get to see them do those things just 60 feet away from each other.

As the Cubs and Dodgers prepare for Game 6, the matchup between Rizzo and Kershaw looms large. For an example of how crucial ace pitcher/star slugger matchups can be, look back no further than Sunday. In three plate appearances, Rizzo and Kershaw demonstrated the tiny margins between being and beating the best. Those three seem worth reviewing in detail.

Deep background: Clayton Kershaw and Anthony Rizzo are, to their respective franchises, more than just a couple of superstars. Each was acquired at a particularly pivotal moment for the club, each was a target of particular interest for the club and each seems like a peach.

The Dodgers won only 71 games in 2005, producing the second-worst winning percentage since the club moved to Los Angeles. Manager Jim Tracy was fired, general manager Paul DePodesta was fired, and in June 2006 the new GM Ned Colletti was leading his first draft with the organization. As the story goes, the Dodgers liked Kershaw a lot -- he was one of the top two names on their draft board -- but they didn't think he'd fall to them with the seventh overall pick. They got help when the Royals used the first overall pick on Luke Hochevar -- a pitcher who was only available because the Dodgers had drafted and failed to sign him after a contentious negotiation the year before. That bumped every other pitcher down a spot in the draft, and Kershaw -- who had pitched poorly in his final start with teams' top scouts in attendance -- landed with the Dodgers. If not Kershaw, scouting director Logan White said later, the Dodgers likely would have taken Tyler Colvin instead.

The Cubs won only 71 games in 2011, continuing a three-year tumble from a 97-win season in 2008. Manager Mike Quade was fired, GM Jim Hendry was fired, and in October, Jed Hoyer, the Padres GM, and Theo Epstein, the Red Sox GM, were recruited to fix the franchise. One of their first moves (besides trading Tyler Colvin to the Rockies) was acquiring Rizzo for top starting pitching prospect Andrew Cashner. It made sense: Hoyer and Epstein had drafted Rizzo when they were both with the Red Sox, and Hoyer traded for him (in the Adrian Gonzalez deal) less than two months after taking the San Diego job. Rizzo's awful rookie season with the Padres -- he hit .141 with a single home run in 153 plate appearances -- had muted the hype around him, and given the extraordinary offensive demands on first basemen, the trade remained difficult to judge for years afterward.

Only Travis Wood, acquired by Hoyer and Epstein a month earlier, has been on the Cubs' major league roster longer than Rizzo. Only Andre Ethier has been on the Dodgers longer than Kershaw. Rizzo has been (by wOBA) the fifth-best hitter in baseball over the past three years, tied with David Ortiz and just ahead of Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant. He has crossed over into Hall-of-Fame-likely territory. Kershaw, of course, could step in a bear trap this winter and still make it into Cooperstown easily, 10-year minimum or no.

Medium Background: Kershaw and Rizzo had faced each other 12 times before this series, not including spring training. (The first time they met, in spring training, is a bit interesting: Rizzo went 4-for-5 in a Cactus League game, but in his first exposure to Kershaw he struck out on three pitches.)

In 2012, Rizzo went 0-for-3 with a strikeout and two weak groundouts. He's a much better hitter now -- though Kershaw is probably a much better pitcher, as well -- and since 2014 he's 3-for-8 with a homer, a double and two strikeouts. Among left-handed hitters with at least four plate appearances against Kershaw since 2014, Rizzo's 1.319 OPS against the ace is the best in baseball. These sorts of matchup stats are almost always meaningless due to sample size limitations, but, hey, Villefort only put Edmond Dantès in prison once. Even small samples can justify a grudge.

Now to the present.

First plate appearance: First inning.

Kershaw has retired the first two Cubs in a scoreless game. He and Rizzo are both battling the narrative monsters, as Rizzo is 1-for-20 in this postseason (after hitting .188 in the 2015 playoffs) and Kershaw allowed eight runs in the NLDS (and a 5.12 ERA in 51 playoff innings before that).

His first pitch to Rizzo is a fastball on the inner third of the plate and in the lower third of the zone.

A little history: On Sept. 19, 2014, Kershaw hit Rizzo with a pitch, as 64 other pitchers have done. Like many of the other 64, Kershaw learned that he wouldn't have to miss by much to hand Rizzo a free base:

In his career, Kershaw has thrown nearly 2,000 pitches further inside than that one, and only 26 hit the batter. So, what lesson might he have learned? Up to that pitch, he had thrown Rizzo 14 pitches, and five were on the inner half of the plate (or inside). After that pitch (but before Game 2), he threw Rizzo 25 pitches, and only two were on the inside half. This is common -- most lefties work Rizzo away, with about twice as many pitches on the outer half or outside than on the inner half or inside -- but it's also plays into Rizzo's game. His power is mostly on the outer half of the plate, especially against lefties throwing fastballs:

To start the first at-bat in Game 2, though, Kershaw goes inside with the pitch, hitting Yasmani Grandal's inside target. Rizzo takes a huge cut, fouling a popup back and out of play. The size of his swing pulls him across home plate and into the right-handed batters box, and as Kershaw follows the flight of the ball Rizzo shoots a brief glance at the pitcher.

It's worth mentioning, probably, that Rizzo does not take many strikes from Kershaw. The first time Rizzo saw him in a regular season game, back in 2012, he swung at the first pitch he saw and fouled it off. The second time he saw him in that game, he swung at the first pitch he saw and fouled that one off, too. The third time he faced him that day, he swung at the first pitch he saw and grounded out. In a total of 15 plate appearances against Kershaw, Rizzo has taken only seven called strikes. "If you're going to sit back and be 0-2 right away, if that's the case, you've got to hit," Rizzo would say after this game.

Now ahead 0-1, Kershaw gets the same target -- inside --but leaves his pitch in the middle of the strike zone.

This is, surprisingly, not Rizzo's power zone -- on all pitches from all pitchers, he actually slugs lower in the center square of the zone than anywhere except up and in -- and pitches down the middle are, surprisingly, one of Clayton Kershaw's strengths. Still, Rizzo is frustrated as he pops the pitch into shallow center field. It's a slugger's pop-up -- I clock it at 6.87 seconds, which is almost crazy -- and Rizzo snaps his bat to the ground as he turns out of the box. It never feels OK to just miss a fastball down the middle.

Kershaw is perfect through one inning, and Rizzo is 1-for-21.

Second Plate Appearance: Fourth Inning.

Rizzo again bats with two outs, and Kershaw still hasn't allowed a baserunner in the game. The Cubs are now trailing by a run.

Kershaw's first pitch is yet another fastball at yet another inside target. He is apparently more concerned about staying away from Rizzo's slugging zones than he is about clipping Rizzo's elbow again, especially with two outs. He misses low with the pitch, and it's 1-0.

Kershaw didn't face the Cubs this year, so the last time Rizzo saw him was on Aug. 28, 2015. He homered in that game, and I count four good reasons for us to watch that at-bat right now:

1. We see on 1-0 what happens when Rizzo, in a hitter's count, gets a fastball in the zone from Kershaw: He takes one of the biggest swings you'll ever see, just misses it, and appears to injure both the catcher and the umpire with the effort. The pitch is about one and a quarter inches from the middle of the strike zone.

2. We see on the next pitch what happens when Kershaw throws him a curveball he's not looking for: He bails as badly as any other left-handed hitter would.

3. We hear Vin Scully calling the at-bat. Remember how great Vin Scully was? Why would we ever pass up the chance to hear that again?

4. We eventually see Rizzo hit his second-longest home run during the Statcast era, with his 27th-hardest exit velocity overall.

Up until that plate appearance, Kershaw worked Rizzo mainly up in the zone, at least with his fastball. Here are the locations of all the fastballs he threw to Rizzo before Aug. 28, 2015:

With the homer, Rizzo proved he could catch up to that pitch.

In Rizzo's next plate appearance that game -- the last matchup between these two before this LCS -- Kershaw worked down with the fastball and struck Rizzo out with a slider.

To this point in Game 2, Kershaw has stayed with that -- low fastball targets, not high -- while pounding Rizzo in. You'd imagine that since his first at-bat, Rizzo has gone back into the tunnel to see the video of his first at-bat, so he knows Kershaw had the same inner target on both pitches. And he knows that Kershaw threw him another fastball on the inner half to start this at-bat.

So, up 1-0, he is ready. Once again, he proves he can catch up to Kershaw's fastball when he is ready: The result is a fly ball that sails out of Wrigley Field, 103.5 mph off the bat, a made-for-dingers 36 degree trajectory -- a combination that produces a home run two-thirds of the time, according to Statcast data -- but this much foul:

It's the closest the Cubs have come to a baserunner, let alone a run. The count is 1-1.

Kershaw's next pitch is 95 mph and at Rizzo's face. He squeezes his eyes shut as he sinks out of the way, the same way you or I would if a bully were about to punch us in the nose. He spends an extra couple beats kneeling in the box as the Wrigley crowd boos.

"That's how you get somebody from covering the outer third of the plate," John Smoltz says on the telecast.

After that you expect the famous Kershaw curveball, the big one that casts batters for GIFs. On the other hand, the curveball seems almost too obvious after the message fastball, and on 2-1 Kershaw goes not with the curve but a slider at the bottom of the zone. Rizzo swings and misses. On 2-2, the curveball comes.

It has more downward movement than any curveball Kershaw will throw all night, according to PITCHf/x data. Rizzo freezes for just a second, but keeps his hip in and his hands back and he waits for it. The big loop pulls it out of the zone away, and Rizzo grounds harmlessly to first base. The perfect game and the lead survive.

Third plate appearance: Seventh inning.

The graphic that the inning leads with is the good news: Kershaw's 6/2/0/0/0/5 pitching line. Uniquely to Kershaw, we might say he hasn't been as dominant as he usually is -- with only six swinging strikes, for instance, he'll set a season low -- but he's thrown only 71 pitches and faced only two batters from the stretch.

Ball one, though, isn't close: a slider way low. Ball two is the same. The bad news starts getting attention: Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers closer, is starting to loosen in the bullpen, even with nine outs to go in this game (and no Kershaw to relieve him). A new graphic on the screen displays Kershaw's postseason ERA in the seventh inning and beyond: 28.93, so bad that you could omit the "2" and still sell a "can't handle the pressure" storyline. After ball two, Kershaw jerks his head back and stares disgustedly into left field.

Here's a fun stat about Kershaw: This year, he threw 27 innings from the seventh on. He allowed three runs, which is an ERA of 1.00. In those 27 innings, he struck out 34 batters and walked one. Batters hit .161/.168/.183. It's, obviously, a small sample, but Kershaw this year was probably the best closer in baseball:

So Kershaw, it should be agreed, can handle the seventh inning.

Of course, nobody worries about Kershaw in the seventh inning unless it's the postseason. Those worries are based on a total of 35 batters faced over 5 1/3 innings. One bad start, basically. Life is complicated enough without worrying about 35-batter samples, but we are how we are. On 2-0, Kershaw switches to a fastball, and it's a little low for ball three.

"I was ready to swing there 3-0, no doubt," Rizzo will say. "It's a 1-nothing game and one swing changes that. I was looking dead-red 3-0 and he threw it in the ground." The pitch bounces before it hit the plate.

It's the least interesting at-bat of the game in many ways. None of the pitches were close, and after the first couple Kershaw wasn't trying anything more complicated than "find the zone." But for the story it was, briefly, the most interesting. It fed the feeling that Kershaw might somehow keep this bizarre clustering of bad postseason innings going. It stoked the panic that one might have felt after a foul popup by Ben Zobrist, the next batter, was dropped. It would have turned out to be the second or third biggest moment of the game if, minutes later, Javier Baez's deep flyball to center field had sneaked over the wall instead of finding Joc Pederson's glove. Instead, it's nothing.

Rizzo's walk added 8 percentage points to the Cubs' chances of winning Game 2. It was, up to that point, his most valuable at-bat in the 2016 postseason.

The Disclaimer: It's important to remember that every player goes onto the field with the intention of executing his game. For all the talk of adjustments, for all the effort put into scouting reports and pregame meetings, the pitcher's primary plan is to make his pitch and the batter's primary plan is to see the ball and hit it hard. For all their experience with each other, Kershaw and Rizzo in Game 6 will recognize each other and, for the most part, remain themselves.

And it will be awesome. Odds are something big will happen.