The curveball came out of Clayton Kershaw’s hand and dropped so far and at such an angle that David Wright did not even try to swing at it. He kept his bat on his shoulder and stood in the batter’s box for a moment as A. J. Ellis, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ catcher, threw to third base before Wright could even fully grasp that he had struck out.
The way Wright described the pitch later, swinging would not have made much difference.
“The only one that you can even hit starts at your eyes,” he said, “and as a hitter, if you get a ball that starts at your eyes, you almost give up on it, and then the bottom falls out of it.
“I think it was a strike.”
Kershaw had not been able to command that pitch, his signature looping curveball, as well during a loss in Game 1 of this National League division series. But in Game 4, pitching on three days’ rest, Kershaw used it to turn in a performance that saved the Dodgers’ season and ripped momentum from the Mets, allowing just one run over seven innings, compiling eight strikeouts and leading the Dodgers to a 3-1 win.
The series now comes down to a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday in Los Angeles, with the Dodgers’ second ace, Zack Greinke, set to pitch. The Mets’ best hope may be Jacob deGrom, their lone All-Star, who pitched seven scoreless innings in Game 1 that showed he was capable of pitching as well as Kershaw did Tuesday.
Even for a pitcher of Kershaw’s caliber, one with three Cy Young Awards and a Most Valuable Player Award to his name, there was some curiosity about how he would pitch on short rest. When Kershaw started on three days’ rest in a division series against the St. Louis Cardinals last year, he allowed a three-run homer that effectively ended the Dodgers’ season.
On Tuesday, the Citi Field crowd tried to intimidate him, chanting: “Ker-shaw! Ker-shaw!” But Kershaw looked undeterred. After walking Wright on six pitches in the first inning, he retired nine batters in order. Lucas Duda looked baffled as he swung through one fastball, and Kershaw froze Wilmer Flores with another.
Earlier in the series, Greinke had been asked what he learned from playing with Kershaw. Greinke revealed that once Kershaw figured out which pitch sequence worked against a batter, he could return to that sequence throughout the game. Instead of trying to fool hitters or strategize against them, Kershaw focuses more on making his pitches as sharp as possible.
“If your pitches are that good,” Greinke said, “they can’t do anything with them.”
When the Mets beat Kershaw in Game 1, their strategy had been to grind out at-bats, drive up Kershaw’s pitch count and chase him as early as possible. That required the Mets to make contact with Kershaw’s pitches, though, and this time, that seemed like an impossible task.
“You know, we tried,” Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “He was just executing all his pitches. He was painting all the corners. And when he did make a mistake, we were late.”
Just as in Game 1, Daniel Murphy gave the Mets their first run with a solo homer in the fourth inning. But Kershaw responded by striking out six batters from the fourth inning to the sixth: two on sliders and four on his signature looping curveball. On two occasions, after particularly nasty strikeouts to end innings, Ellis, the Dodgers’ catcher, started for the dugout before the Mets’ batter had moved.
“You go up there and look for fastball, slider, and he throws a curveball,” Wright said. “Good luck next time.”
Kershaw even collected the Dodgers’ first hit off Steven Matz, punching a hard single into left field.
While Kershaw was pitching on short rest, Matz, a Mets rookie who had been nursing a back injury, had perhaps been resting too much. This was his first start in 19 days.
The pressure on Matz was immense. He was making his seventh career start and his postseason debut against Kershaw, in a possible series-clinching game. A lifelong Mets fan who grew up on Long Island, Matz also had several friends and relatives in the stands.
Matz looked poised, too, until Kershaw’s single ignited a rally in the third inning. Howie Kendrick hit a two-out single, Adrian Gonzalez drove in a run with a bloop single, and Justin Turner, a former Met, roped a double down the left-field line to score two more.
The Dodgers chased Matz after five innings, after he had thrown only 85 pitches.
“I had one bad inning,” Matz said. “Made a couple of bad pitches.”
The Mets had decided against using deGrom on short rest. On Monday, Kershaw had asked Mets Manager Terry Collins if deGrom would be starting Game 4, and when Collins told him no, Kershaw remarked that deGrom had thrown a lot of pitches during Game 1 — 121, to be exact.
“Yeah, so did you,” Collins told Kershaw, “but you’re making $300 million.”
On Tuesday, Kershaw looked strong through the seventh, the inning that doomed him in last year’s series. Yoenis Cespedes led off the inning for the Mets and reached on an infield single as a slow roller ricocheted off the edge of Kershaw’s glove. But Kershaw retired the next three batters — Travis d’Arnaud, Duda, and Flores — on just six pitches. Flores, at least, hit a hard ground ball, but Turner made a nifty grab at third base for the third out.
After Kershaw left the game, the Dodgers had their first sign of trouble, and Manager Don Mattingly turned to Kenley Jansen, his closer, to get four outs. After he closed out the ninth inning, Jansen clenched his fist and hugged Ellis, and the Mets fans quietly filed out of the park, having seen what might prove the team’s last home game of the year.