ST. LOUIS — With 21 wins, two shutouts, an ERA of 1.77 and 239 strikeouts in 27 games, Clayton Kershaw’s numbers are so good he makes video game characters jealous. The St. Louis Cardinals couldn’t have had a tougher pitching draw for Game 1 if he was designed in a lab.
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The respect around the Cardinal clubhouse for Kershaw is clear, with nearly every player touching on the challenge of facing the two-time Cy Young winner.
“He’s got the velocity, the nasty slider and can do different things to get you out,” Yadier Molina said simply, summarizing the lefty’s diverse arsenal with a slight tilt of his head. “We gotta swing the bat well. We have to do the little things. We have to move the runner over, we have to get the sacrifice. We’ve been doing that the whole year, so hopefully we can do that.”
Those little things can become monstrous turning points. With Adam Wainwright on one side and Kershaw on the other, opportunities for offense will be scant. Neither gives away many bases; their combined ERA of 4.15 paints a daunting picture for hitters.
Wainwright finished on an absolute tear, winning Pitcher of the Month in September over Kershaw. The young Dodger has the makeup of a Hall of Famer, and though he may have finished behind St. Louis’ ace in the final month, Kershaw drew heavy praise from Mike Matheny.
“The stuff’s pretty obvious. I think the mental toughness and the consistency. There’s a lot of guys with good stuff, but to consistently come out with that kind of stuff - above average breaking ball, he’s got an above average fastball - and everything else is used very wisely,” Matheny said. “He doesn’t throw a lot of balls, he controls the counts. You can either sit up there and take pitches and be in pitcher counts or you can go up there and stay in your zone - whatever zone that is. That’s the approach we’d like to take.”
Facing Kershaw is like playing chess, with either side attempting to find and exploit a crack in the other’s approach. The Los Angeles ace’s ability to evolve his attack to counter hitters makes him a difficult puzzle to solve, and that’s why Matheny says a team-wide approach is too simple.
“Our philosophy and strategy is individualized. It goes toward their strengths or tendencies they see with how he may have pitched them in the past. There’s not just one. He’d chew us up just like any other pitcher would in the league,” he said, emphasizing that allowing each hitter to take a different strategy into the box is the best way to give them a chance. “We’re hoping he’s trying to figure out eight - with our pitcher eight and a half - philosophies and each hitter is sticking with his strength.”
Kershaw eviscerated the Cardinals in LA in June, striking out 13 and allowing five hits. When they met again in July, the Cardinals forced him into a no decision, plating three runs on six hits. According to some in the clubhouse, the offense has evolved since Kershaw last saw it. Though the team’s offensive numbers are virtually the same since July 20 (the last time Kershaw pitched against the Birds), Matt Adams feels like the team has become more dangerous.
“I think we’ve come around since then,” he said. “We’ve gotten better with runners in scoring position, doing the little things right, getting runners over to scoring position and getting them in. I think it’s going to be a good matchup.”
Matheny said the lineup evolves on a nightly basis, sometimes swinging like a powerhouse and other times manufacturing runs to get by. Even so, consistency tends to be a fleeting concept in the postseason, where unknown names become household ones and story lines are in a constant state of flux.
“When you get to the postseason, it’s a totally different game. Everyone is at that point where you just played 162 games but you understand the goal you’ve been going for all year is right there,” Kolten Wong said. “Everyone kicks it to a different level and gets mentally focused. I think you can’t really prepare for that. You can’t prepare for how he’s going to pitch we’re just going to go out there and grind and battle and try to pull off a win.”
Wong’s October run last year taught him that playoff games are an unpredictable battleground, with the outcomes sometimes hinging on one fateful instant. It’s a lesson echoed by Matt Holliday, who has seen 247 postseason plate appearances in his 11 years.
“Typically in games like this where it’s going to be pitching-heavy, it’s going to be the team or the guy who gets the big hit with runners on base or the big double or big home run that tips the balance of the game,” he said. “We’ve faced him a lot, and we’ve seen his pitches. Hopefully he leaves a couple of them in the middle of the plate.”
Given Kershaw’s eye-popping season, the smallest miscalculation by either side could change the path of the entire postseason.