WASHINGTON — It is one of baseball’s enduring mysteries in recent years and will be front-and-center in Game 1 of the NL Division Series between the Dodgers and Nationals that begins Friday:
Why is LA lefty Clayton Kershaw so downright masterful during the regular season and so decidedly mediocre during the playoffs?
While a player such as Nationals slugger Bryce Harper talks about thriving when the stage is biggest, the lights brightest, the TV audience broadest, Kershaw seems to spend early October dealing with questions about what happens to him at this time of year. He goes from being a three-time Cy Young Award winner (with a pair of other top-three finishes in voting) who wins two out of every three decisions (126-60 career record) and owns a 2.37 ERA to just a guy: 2-6, 4.59 ERA.
“The bad ones stand out more,” he said Thursday, “for sure.”
He offered one possible explanation for the disparity, and a hopeful-sounding view of why things could be different this time around, beginning when he faces Max Scherzer and the rest of the NL East champions.
In years gone by, Kershaw said, he thought he was supposed to carry the Dodgers.
But he missed more than two months with a back injury in 2016 and thought it took some time to get completely comfortable when he returned for five starts in September.
“In the past, I’ve definitely felt that pressure more. But this year’s been a little bit different for me, just as far as having to watch on the sidelines . . . It’s really kind of hit home for me a little bit, as I’ve come back, that I can definitely be a part of this and definitely help and definitely be a factor in winning,” Kershaw said. “But I don’t have to be the factor.”
Another difference: He recently picked up somewhat of a sidearm delivery for the occasional 95 mph fastball, something he got from Game 2 starter Rich Hill.
Neither Dodgers rookie manager Dave Roberts nor Kershaw himself has spent time going over video of past playoff performances to try to glean anything that could be improved or changed for this series.
“I don’t read too much into it and haven’t looked back on it. I don’t think it has any bearing on this postseason, the start tomorrow,” Roberts said. “And I really don’t think Clayton cares, either.”
Setting aside Kershaw’s particular case, for the moment, there are those players, to be sure, who are able to elevate themselves when the stakes and scrutiny are the greatest.
Harper, who slugged .882 with three homers in Washington’s 2014 NLDS loss to San Francisco, describes himself as someone who enjoys “playing in front of millions of people” and adds: “My heart doesn’t really race or anything like that. I’m super calm. I feel great at the plate. I feel great in the outfield. Just feels like home.”
Nationals leftfielder Jayson Werth, who won a World Series title with Philadelphia in 2008, spoke about Phillies teammate Jimmy Rollins as an example of someone who performed best when the TV cameras turned on.
“The red light’s on and, all of a sudden, he turns into a superhero. That’s more personality than DNA, I think,” Werth said. “Some guys can do it. Some guys are the opposite. They play better during the season, when no one’s watching.”
Some other story lines to watch in the NLDS between the Dodgers and Nationals:
This series features two outstanding rookies who might be the teams’ most dynamic offensive players, Dodgers SS Corey Seager (.308 average, 26 HRs) and Nationals CF Trea Turner (.342, 13 HRs, 33 SBs in 73 games). “He’s going to help us out tremendously the next couple of weeks,” Harper said about Turner.
HOME VS. ROAD
The Dodgers went 53-28 at home and only 38-43 on the road in 2016; if the best-of-five NLDS goes the distance, Game 5 will be at Nationals Park. “You know what?” Roberts said. “I don’t think there’ll be carry-over.”
Each club features a top regular-season closer — Washington’s Mark Melancon converted 47 of 51 save chances this year; LA’s Kenley Jansen went 47 for 53. One difference: Melancon was asked to earn a save of more than three outs only twice all season, while Jansen did it five times, and Roberts said he’d have no qualms about asking for that repeatedly in the series.
This is the first postseason matchup in MLB history involving two black managers. “It gives us some pride, in being African-American, to show people that not only can we do the job, but we can do the job better than most,” Washington’s Dusty Baker said.