Clayton Kershaw was pitching a masterpiece for the Los Angeles Dodgers last week. In seven innings, he hadn’t allowed a baserunner. He was throwing a perfect match, one of sport’s greatest feats.
Kershaw had thrown just 80 pitches – an average of just 11.4 pitches per inning. He retired 13 of 21 batters. He was in the groove.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts sent him to the showers. The Dodgers used two more pitchers to complete a 7-0 win over the Minnesota Twins. They allowed just one hit, which could indicate the likelihood of Kershaw continuing his mastery of the Twins’ batting.
Removing Kershaw from the game at this time was equivalent to removing Van Gogh‘s canvas in the middle of rendering “Starry Starry Night”.
Or take McCartney off the piano in the middle of writing “Long and Winding Road.”
What if they had stopped Secretariat at the eighth furrow of the Belmont Stake?
How could the Dodgers rob Kershaw of a rare chance to make history? There have only been 23 perfect games in 150 years of Major League Baseball. That’s 23 out of some 218,500 games. The last perfect match was in 2012. For some strange reason, there were three that year – and seven from 2004 to 2012 – but years and years can pass between perfect matches.
On the face of it, the decision to strip Kershaw of his perfect game was an outrage, but there were two sides to the decision.
On one side: What are the chances that Kershaw will ever have such an opportunity? And how can anyone deny the fans who wanted to see history made? Perhaps more than any sport, baseball thrives on stats, numbers and milestones.
“I’d like to think we’re all baseball fans,” Roberts told ESPN. “I know I am. And so the fans want to see big moments. I totally get that. Clayton wants to see a big moment for himself, personally. But I can’t handle a ball club and players with my fan cap.
The Other Side: Roberts was protecting his pitcher. He made a cold and calculated business decision to remove his star pitcher from the game.
It was just bad timing and the wrong circumstances. Kershaw was coming back from an injury. He was placed on the injured list last July with pain in his left forearm. He returned in September, but elbow pain forced him to miss the playoffs.
The game at Minnesota last week marked his first start of the season. The game took place in cold Minnesota. The Dodgers planned to limit Kershaw’s pitching count early in the season and allow him to gradually rebuild his arm, giving him the best chance to play all season.
“Yeah, I have to make a tough decision,” Roberts said afterwards. “But in the end, it wasn’t as difficult as we thought. If you talk about his next departure, it would be a little more difficult. Then, the next departure, it would have been harder, and I would have probably given him a leash. But that first start, it was – I don’t want to say obvious – but it was actually quite easy.
Roberts’ decision recalls a similar situation in 1965, when Chicago Bears rookie sensation Gale Sayers scored six touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers, tying a league record. Late in the game, the Bears headed for the goal line again, giving Sayers a chance for a record seventh touchdown, which to this day has yet to be accomplished. Three players are stuck at six touchdowns – Dub Jones (1951), Sayers (1965) and Alvin Kamara (2020). Sayers was lucky to set a record that could last forever.
But Sayers was on the sidelines at this point in the match. Bears fans chanted for Sayers to return to the field, but coach George Halas kept him on the sidelines, allowing running back Jon Arnett to score on a two-yard touchdown run.
“I would never have forgiven myself if I had allowed him to stay and he was badly injured,” Halas explained afterwards. Three years later, Sayers suffered a knee injury which precipitated the premature end of his career.
Kershaw isn’t the first pitcher to be pulled from a perfect game late in the inning. He’s not even the first to be fired by Roberts in this situation. In 2016, Rich Hill, Kershaw’s former teammate, had a perfect game in seven innings (and 89 pitches) against the Miami Marlins, and Roberts pulled him out of the game with a blister on one. thrower’s fingers. Afterwards, Roberts said the decision made him “stomach ache”. Hill recently told Masslive.com: “It was hard to live as a player, to be in a situation like that.”
As for Kershaw, he was nostalgic after the game, but concluded, “when the game ended in the moment, it was the right call.” The following day, he told ESPN: “If I was a fan, I would want to see someone finish the game. From a fan’s perspective, I feel bad for that. I wish I could have done that. But yesterday was not the day.