It’s the Kershaw Crusade, and it’s breathtaking.
His shoulder is weeping. His velocity is dropping. His control is slipping.
Clayton Kershaw took the mound Saturday against the San Francisco Giants as a shell of himself, an aging and injured pitcher fighting time and battling pain and doing whatever it takes to survive one more pitch.
One more start. One more postseason. One more month. One last stand.
And, on this loud and chilling night, one more win, five innings of a shutout without his best stuff, a proud fighter shouting in frustration and gesturing in celebration and leaving everything on the same mound where he long ago found it.
He pitches on six days of rest now. He can only go five innings now. He summons every ounce of his strength with every delivery, as if it will be his last, which it just might be.
Watch him, enjoy him, cherish him, do it while you can, because you probably won’t be seeing him in a Dodger uniform for much longer. While he remains non-committal, all indications are that when the Kershaw Crusade is done, Kershaw himself is likely done, seemingly ready to retire or go home to the Texas Rangers.
Saturday was likely his last regular-season start at Dodger Stadium. He’ll start one of the first two playoff games at Chavez Ravine and that could be it.
Sixteen years, gone in a strained flash. A Hall of Fame career, ending in one last fight.
And goodness, he’s still somehow managing to throw haymakers, winning the 7-0 decision, holding the Giants scoreless over those five innings while allowing just two hits with five strikeouts by throwing … what exactly?
His 25 fastballs didn’t touch 90 mph. In his prime he was regularly hitting 95.
He threw 30 balls to 18 batters, eight times running into two-ball counts. Once upon a time, he had more control.
It didn’t matter. He worked the edges. He figured it out.
“I think it’s trending in a positive direction,” he said afterward. “Not where I want it to be all the way yet, but overall, definitely some steps in the right direction for sure.”
He battled with such focus that he loudly shouted when he bounced a curveball. And when his stint ended on a diving catch by left fielder David Peralta with two runners on base, he thrust his hands high in the air as if he had just thrown for a touchdown.
He knows how hard this is. He knows how vulnerable he is. He knows how fleeting this can be.
“I’d much rather just be good the whole time and throw as hard as I possibly could, it’s no fun to figure stuff out,” he said. “But, adapt or die.”
As he walked off the field he waved to his family in the stands and some wondered, was he also possibly waving goodbye to regular-season fans?
“Thankfully we’re in the playoffs and it’s a nice distraction so you don’t have to really think about next year,” he said. “Whenever it could be your last one, maybe take a second extra, but I’m so far away from that decision that I don’t even have time to worry about it.”
They will erect a statue of Kershaw outside the outfield gates one day. Here’s hoping the pose will contain a dripping beard and gritted teeth and everything that he is showing us one more time in these final days.
“It’s remarkable, it really is,” said manager Dave Roberts. “I think that Clayton is the first to tell you he doesn’t like to use anything as an excuse or talk about anything, but I know what’s going on.”
The Dodgers and Kershaw won’t publicly cop to what’s going on, but it can’t be good. It’s the left shoulder, and it sidelined him for a month in July, and it only appears to be getting worse as Kershaw continues to gut it out.
The fact that Kershaw won’t talk about it speaks volumes about the pitcher.
“Giving more information, talking about something, that doesn’t change the fact that you’re going to go out there and pitch. What’s the point of it?” said Roberts. “I think Clayton, he sees the world sometimes like that. And in that vein or that sense, I understand that.”
It all adds to a legend that is growing as it ages, a wonderful farewell tour for a guy who is still showing something new with every stop.
Did you see these stats? Since Kershaw staggered back from the injured list, he is 3-0 with a 2.03 ERA in seven starts. The team is 6-1 in those games. All this despite the fact that he has induced only four swinging strikes on 169 four-seam fastballs during those games.
“I just have so much respect for him,” said Roberts. “People can’t do what he can do. I remember there was a start here a few years ago … in a day game where his back went out. And he found a way to get three or four innings of zero-hit baseball — or no run — and I don’t know how he was doing it. He ended up going on the IL right after that. He just sort of wills himself to get guys out.”
When I asked if Roberts thought the Kershaw Crusade could be the end of Kershaw in a Dodger uniform, he softly smiled.
“I’ve thought about that for the last few years,” he said. “I will say that I’m not going to get caught not appreciating what he’s done for the Dodgers.”
And to think, he wasn’t always so appreciated. He is arguably the greatest pitcher in Dodgers franchise history, in part because he overcame so much adversity to reach this point.
Kershaw’s career here has not been an upward trajectory, but rather two separate divergent paths.
His first 12 years, he was plagued by the underlying theme of his postseason failures. It was always, “Kershaw is great, but…”
But … there were the 2013 and 2014 twin playoff meltdowns against the St. Louis Cardinals.
But … he was cheated to a pulp in the 2017 World Series against the Houston Astros.
But … he racked up a 7.36 ERA against the Boston Red Sox in the 2018 World Series.
But … he gave up back-to-back homers in relief that led to a Dodgers’ loss in the 2019 playoff series against the Washington Nationals.
At one point, there was a real chance that Kershaw would end his career here in bittersweet ambiguity. But then, in the last four years, everything changed. Having earned redemption in the 2020 World Series, Kershaw has since removed all doubts and every “but.”
Today he is, “Kershaw is great, period.”
He is the Dodger franchise leader in pitching WAR. He is the leader in strikeouts. He ranks second in wins. He leads the early retiring Sandy Koufax in virtually every category except postseason ERA.
Many fans think Koufax’ 0.95 in four series makes him the greatest Dodger pitcher of all time, especially since Kershaw’s postseason ERA is 4.22 in 21 series. You won’t win that argument here. Kershaw is the greatest Dodger pitcher because he has mowed down more hitters much longer than anyone else.
Koufax had an incredible career, and trumps Kershaw’s lone title with four championships, but he did it over a much shorter stretch. Note, Koufax threw 605 fewer innings than Kershaw in regular and postseason combined, and that matters.
One thing both men share is great physical sacrifice for the organization. While Koufax retired at age 30 because of elbow problems, Kershaw, 35, has struggled for several years with all sorts of arm and back problems.
It is not a coincidence that Kershaw finally rid himself of his postseason demons in a season that was only 60 games. It was in the COVID-beset 2020, and spending much of the summer on the sideline helped keep him fresh enough to win both of his World Series starts against the Tampa Bay Rays, compiling a 2.31 ERA with 14 strikeouts and three walks in 11 ⅔ innings.
When the normal schedule returned the following year, so did his aches.
In 2021 he didn’t pitch in the playoffs because of an elbow injury. Last season he allowed three runs in five innings in a 5-3 Game 2 loss to the Padres in his only postseason appearance.
There was some speculation that he might retire then. Turns out, he felt he wasn’t done. Turns out, he was right.
“He truly lives the lifestyle of being prepared, no excuses,” said teammate Jason Heyward, who this year is playing behind Kershaw for the first time. “He wants the ball every single time. … It’s truly cemented to his hand. … He’s just the epitome of just [how] you want your kids to be, work hard, get what you work for. He’s shown that and so much more.”
Heyward said the truly amazing thing is that Kershaw is treating his 16th season like his first.
“It’s really cool to see. … At this point of his career, it’s very easy to check out, make excuses, but he’s always been prepared,” Heyward said.
It’s pushing October, and he’s ready again. His 22nd playoff series is coming. And as crazy as it sounds, as he gets older and creakier, Kershaw continues to live out the first words that are heard from the “Fun” song that has forever accompanied him to the mound.
If the Kershaw Crusade had a theme, it would be those words.
“Tonight … we are young.”