The Kershaw Redemption
Before Wednesday, there had been two pitchers in baseball history who had thrown exactly seven perfect innings before coming out. The first was a lefthanded pitcher from Texas named Ed Karger, whom Ty Cobb once ranked as one of the three toughest pitchers he ever faced.
“He didn’t have much more than a barnyard curve and a prayer,” Cobb said. “But he had me breaking my back.”
On Aug. 11, 1907, Karger pitched the second game of a doubleheader between the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Doves. Yeah, Doves. What of it? Because it was a doubleheader and there were no lights back then, the two sides agreed to make the second game seven innings long. Karger started for the Cardinals and pitched seven perfect innings, striking out two and walking nobody.
For a while, Karger’s name would get mentioned whenever someone threw a perfect game, as he was one of four pitchers (Harry Vickers, Dean Chance and David Palmer were the others) to throw less-than-nine-inning perfect games. The other three, though, only threw five perfect innings.
You might remember the other pitcher to throw exactly seven perfect innings — that was Rich Hill for the Dodgers in 2016. It was kind of a big deal. Hill had thrown seven perfect innings and just 89 pitches, and he absolutely wanted to keep pitching. But a blister had reemerged on Hill’s pitching hand — he had already missed six weeks because of blister problems — and Dave Roberts pulled him.
“I feel sick to my stomach,” Roberts said after the game. “I don’t think I’ll get any sleep tonight. And I shouldn’t.”
Hill was furious. He stomped around. He swore. He smashed a bat against the bench. You could understand — he was already 36 years old, he’d kicked around for eight different teams, he was having the best year of his life, and he had a chance at making history. Afterward, he said all the right things about how Roberts was looking out for the team and Hill’s own long-term success. But I imagine he’s never fully gotten over it.
And on Wednesday, one more time, a pitcher threw exactly seven innings of perfect baseball, and one more time Dave Roberts pulled him.
This time, that pitcher just happened to be a living legend named Clayton Kershaw.
We can talk about the decision to pull Kershaw if you want. Lots of people have thoughts. We can join all the people piling on Dave Roberts, who incredibly is the only manager in baseball history to pull a starter after seven innings with a perfect game … AND HE HAS DONE IT TWICE!
We can join the chorus of people who are using this to gripe about analytics and the death of starting pitching and all the ways that baseball has gone so very wrong over the last few years. This chorus included Reggie Jackson, who unleashed a seven-exclamation-point, mostly all CAPS Tweet that ended with a plea: “THIS IS BASEBALL PLEASE PEOPLE THAT HAVE NEVER PLAYED GET OUT OF ITS WAY.”
Boon: Forget it, he’s rolling.
We can echo the sentiments of our friend Ferguson Jenkins, who Tweeted: “Not even if I had a broken arm and had to roll the ball over the plate am I leaving a perfect game in the 7th.” Believe him. Between 1967 and 1972, six seasons, Fergie threw 140 complete games. That’s 23 complete games per season.
Clayton Kershaw, who I truly believe to be the greatest pitcher of his generation, has only averaged 22 STARTS over the last six seasons.*
*To be fair, this does include the COVID season. But it’s a good stat.
Thing is, I think this might miss a key point, which is this: There was no chance in the world that Clayton Kershaw was pitching nine innings on Wednesday in Minnesota. We all knew it. We might not have liked it, might have wished for something else, but I mean, when that game started, if someone had asked you, “What are the chances that Clayton Kershaw throws a nine-inning complete game today?” you would have said: Zero percent.
Not 1%. Not 0.5%. No: 0.000000000000000%.
I mean, you’re upset. I’m upset. We’re all upset. We all got caught up in the magic, the wonderful madness, of Clayton Kershaw throwing seven perfect innings and then had to endure the inevitable disappointment of him getting pulled. That stinks.
But it doesn’t make the other stuff we know about Kershaw just go away.
What other stuff?
Clayton Kershaw is 34 years old and has not made 30 starts in a season since 2015, which was “Cam Newton was the NFL MVP” years ago.
Kershaw finished last season with his elbow barely intact. It was so bad that after the season ended, he did not pick up a baseball for three months. Rumors circulated that he might retire and I suspect he seriously considered it.
He only began throwing again in January and did not feel confident that he could actually stay healthy enough to pitch until March.
In a shortened spring training, he threw a grand total of 101 pitches. The most pitches he threw on any given day was 75, and that was in a simulated game, not exactly the same thing.
Do you know when was the last time Clayton Kershaw threw a complete game? Go ahead, take a stab at it. It was July 9, 2017, against Kansas City. That’s almost five years, if you’re scoring at home.
Oh yeah, it was like 30 degrees with a howling wind at Target Field.
No, there was no possibility of Kershaw pitching nine innings, no matter how efficient he was, no matter how dominant he was, no matter what. That’s not analytics. That’s just plain common sense. Sure, I wish it was 1973 again. Sure I wish that starting pitchers still went the distance. Sure, I wish Clayton Kershaw was 21 again and spry enough to pitch all night.
But all of us know that none of that is true.
“Yeah, I have to make a tough decision,” Roberts said after the game. “But ultimately, it wasn’t as tough as perceived.”
It hurts to hear that. But it’s true. The outrage is real, all of us feel it, we REALLY wanted to see Clayton Kershaw at least try for a perfect game. Trouble is, nobody knows where to point that outrage, because the simple fact is that risking Clayton Kershaw’s already shaky health would have been irresponsible.
Even Kershaw himself said it.
“It was time,” he said of his removal from the game.
He didn’t like it any more than the rest of us did. But reality is reality.
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Why does it matter so much to us?
That’s a much more fun topic to discuss. Baseball fans truly CARE about historic moments and achievements like perfect games and immaculate innings and cycles in a way that other sports fans do not.
Give you an example: You might know that there have been 23 perfect games in baseball history. That number was thrown around a lot as people groaned about the decision to pull Kershaw.
But what you might not know is that the 23 include two perfect games thrown in 1880, when baseball was completely different. I mean COMPLETELY different. In 1880, there was no mound — pitchers threw from inside a box. The box was just 50 feet away from home plate. Pitchers were not allowed to pitch overhand. It took eight balls for a batter to walk. Batters could ask for pitches in a certain spot — like, “Throw me a high one here.”
So what’s the point? The point is that we baseball fans are so blindly in love with the game’s history that we count perfect games thrown by Lee Richmond and John Montgomery Ward 140 years ago when baseball wasn’t even baseball yet. That’s how much significance we tie to perfect games. We care about them so much more than we care about, say, 60-point scoring games or 250-yard rushing games or five-goal games.
In fact, here’s a fun little quiz to see how much you care about perfect games: I’ll list 12 pitchers. Six threw perfect games. Six did not. Can you pick out the six in each category?
(1) Sandy Koufax
(2) Bob Gibson
(3) Jose Rijo
(4) Tom Seaver
(5) Philip Humber
(6) Len Barker
(7) Rick Reuschel
(8) David Cone
(9) Tom Browning
(10) Bret Saberhagen
(11) Hideo Nomo
(12) Dallas Braden
While you ponder that*, let’s get back to Kershaw. He was amazing on Wednesday. It wouldn’t be right to say that he looked young again because he really didn’t. The young Kershaw was a fastball-first force of nature. He fired his 95-mph heater over either corner and then threw his killer 90-mph slider and then blended in a 75-mph curve that left hitters gasping for air.
Today’s Kershaw is a slider-first pitcher. It’s still one helluva slider, even if it has lost a few mph. The fastball often doesn’t get to 90. The curveball is a touch slower, too. You know how it is — everything slows down when you get older.
So, no, this was not Electric Kershaw. This was Professor Kershaw. This was a masterclass of working over hitters, hypnotizing them, Jedi mind-tricking them. Byron Buxton worked a full count and then swung over a Kershaw slider that was heading south for vacation. Luis Arraez swung at four straight Kershaw pitches, the last a half-swing on a slider that was down in the dirt. Gio Urshela then grounded out on a middle-middle slider that he didn’t seem to be expecting.
That was the first inning.
Jorge Polanco popped out on a slider a little too far inside, and then came the strikeouts: Gary Sanchez waved at a slider that was already by him, Max Kepler chased one that was breaking halfway to St. Paul, Nick Gordon chased one that was two-thirds of the way to Eden Prairie, Buxton swung through a slider that he undoubtedly thought was a fastball, Arraez swung over a slider that was trying to burrow its way under home plate.
Yes, this was a master at work.
And I think there were two emotions at play. One emotion was the pure and unadulterated joy of seeing one of the greats of the game star once more, one of the best feelings in all of sports — like seeing Tiger make birdies at the Masters again.
The other emotion was expected sadness, because, again, we knew he wasn’t going to finish the game.
He was at 69 pitches through six innings — 18-up and 18-down — and Roberts came over to talk with him. Their talk was frank. Roberts asked how many pitches Kershaw had left. Kershaw figured he had 80 pitches total, maybe if he really stretched he could get to 85. Roberts nodded and sent Kershaw out to pitch the seventh.
Kershaw did not have his best stuff in the seventh. He would say later that his slider was flat each of the final two innings. But Kershaw’s excellence on this day had little to do with stuff and a lot to do with what he’s learned. He struck out Buxton on a curveball, got Arraez to pop out on an inside slider and then Urshela ripped a ball up the middle, and Gavin Lux was positioned just right and turned it into the third out.
Kershaw’s pitch count was at 80.
And that was that.
Kershaw seemed to know he was done. There was no stomping around. There was no complaining. He was all smiles. He’d pitched one helluva game.
Of course, it stinks. Kershaw was two innings away from history. He was six outs away from the crowning moment, the perfect game that would connect him even more deeply to Sandy Koufax. Of course it stinks, not just for Kershaw (and not just for catcher Austin Barnes; Kershaw felt worse for Barnes than he did himself) but for all of us, for all of baseball.
That’s why people were yelling and firing all-caps Tweets and using the harshest words they could find like “disgrace” and “scandal” and the rest. What can you do? Maybe if Kershaw had stayed in, he would have found one more wave of sorcery, he would have completed the perfect game. It’s possible. Maybe if he had stayed in, he would have tweaked his elbow, been out for three weeks, returned but with diminished velocity, gotten an MRI, you know how the story goes … also possible.
In the end, I’ll stick with Kershaw’s three-word summation: “It was time.” We can rage against time. But we can never beat it.
*The six pitchers on that list who threw a perfect game are: (1) Sandy Koufax; (5) Philip Humber; (6) Len Barker; (8) David Cone; (9) Tom Browning and (12) Dallas Braden. But I’m betting you already knew that.