After Dodgers’ early exit, Clayton Kershaw must decide if he wants to pitch again

PHOENIX — Clayton Kershaw did not linger in the dugout. As the final out settled inside the glove of Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Kershaw pushed himself away from the railing where he had spent the previous two hours and fifty minutes watching the Dodgers serve up home runs and fritter away chances in a 4-2 defeat in Game 3 of the National League Division Series. All evening he had cradled a baseball in his hands, wishing and hoping for a Game 4 that would never come. Now he must contemplate if he will ever pitch again.

For several years, Kershaw has entered each offseason trying to decide among three paths: to return to the Dodgers, the only franchise he has ever known; to sign with his hometown Texas Rangers; or to retire. He will face those same choices again, far earlier than he had hoped. The abruptness of this exit, a sweep by the Diamondbacks, left him unsure what would come next.

“I don’t know to answer that right now,” Kershaw said.

A year ago, after the 111-win Dodgers crashed out early in the postseason, Kershaw opted to come back to Los Angeles after only a few days of discussion with his wife Ellen. This year, he told The Athletic on Wednesday, he will take longer to decide. He is considering undergoing an additional examination on his left shoulder, which he injured in late June. The shoulder condition, which Kershaw has declined to specify, led to reduced fastball velocity and diminished command in the final months of the season. He indicated he was unlikely to engage in serious contemplation about his future for several weeks.

Kershaw refused to use his health as an excuse for his performance in Game 1, when he surrendered six runs to the upstart Diamondbacks and recorded only one out. A lack of alternatives and a trust in Kershaw’s resilience led the Dodgers to line him up for Game 4, even though he had not pitched on four days of rest since May. “I believe in Clayton until the end,” manager Dave Roberts said before the game. But that belief will not be tested again in 2023. Kershaw would not receive another chance to pitch.

“Obviously, a horrible way to end it, personally,” Kershaw said. “But that’s ultimately not important. It’s just how I didn’t help the team win the series. That’s the most disappointing part, letting your guys down. Process it however best you can — I don’t even know what that means, really.”

Despite missing time on the injured list in recent years, Kershaw remains one of the most effective pitchers in the sport. He made his tenth All-Star team this summer. He completed 24 starts with a 2.46 ERA; among the 87 pitchers who threw at least 130 innings, only San Diego Padres starter Blake Snell posted a lower ERA. At season’s end, his career 2.48 ERA and his 157 ERA+ remained the best among starting pitchers in the live-ball era.

Yet he also dealt with unprecedented physical vulnerability. His fastball velocity dipped beneath 90 mph. He struggled to generate the necessary depth on his slider. He could not control his curveball. In Game 1 at Dodger Stadium, Arizona peppered him with vicious swings, unfazed by his arsenal, undaunted by his reputation.

The pummeling left Kershaw stunned. It also set the tone for the series. The Dodgers never recovered. Bobby Miller, the Game 2 starter, secured only five outs. Lance Lynn, a veteran acquired at the trade deadline, served up four homers in Wednesday’s third inning. The Dodgers offense could not answer.

“The bottom line,” Roberts said, “is they outplayed us in every facet of the game.”

“It’s hard to put into words,” said Freddie Freeman, who recorded one hit in three games.

“We didn’t do much,” said Mookie Betts, who went hitless in the series. “I can’t speak for all of us, but I didn’t do actually anything to help us win.”

A win would have offered Kershaw a chance at redemption. When the day began, Kershaw arrived at the ballpark preparing for familiar territory. If the Dodgers could stave off elimination, the season would once more ride on his left arm — just as it had when he pitched on short rest in the postseason in 2013 and 2014 and 2015 and 2016.

At 2:15 p.m., nearly four hours before the first pitch of Game 3, Kershaw emerged from the visitors dugout and ambled toward a bullpen tucked in the right-field corner. He carried his glove but no baseball. For eight minutes, he pantomimed his delivery without throwing, a process of visualization he undertakes on the day before every start. He learned the practice from former teammate Derek Lowe 15 years ago, during the summer of 2008, when he was 20 years old and clawing to establish himself in the major leagues. Kershaw incorporated it into his own routine, one of the rituals he relied upon to steady him when he succeeded and boost him on those rare occasions he failed.

Kershaw stepped into the outfield to play catch with bullpen catcher Steve Cilladi. He lounged in the grass as first-base coach Dino Ebel tapped grounders to outfielder James Outman. He gazed up at the Chase Field videoboard, which was airing the game between the Phillies and the Braves. After a while, Arizona pitcher Zac Gallen approached to chat. Gallen, a 28-year-old who made his first All-Star team in 2023, is part of a younger generation of admirers. He had tried to pick Kershaw’s brain at the Midsummer Classic in Seattle, but did not want to be a nuisance.

“He was a guy I grew up watching,” Gallen said in September. “I try not to bother him when I see him. But I could talk his ear off for an hour.” The immensity of Kershaw’s achievements left Gallen with one question. “I just want to ask him, ‘How?’” Gallen said. “I know there’s not a secret sauce. But for me, I just want to know ‘How? How have you done it?’”

The two pitchers talked for several minutes before Kershaw repaired to his clubhouse. He pulled on a hoodie with shredded sleeves and stood in the center of the dugout, chatting with catcher Austin Barnes and pitcher Emmet Sheehan as the Dodgers made a futile attempt to top the Diamondbacks. After the final out, Kershaw sipped a Miller Lite and felt his adrenaline dump. He was not ready to make life-altering decisions or make sweeping pronouncements.

“I’m not sure,” Kershaw said, when asked about his future. He would have time to think about it. Far more time than he desired. The defeat on Wednesday meant many things to this franchise, which has failed in three consecutive Octobers despite gaudy regular-season performances. For Kershaw, the defeat meant that he needed to contemplate his own ending.

(Top photo: Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

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