ST. LOUIS -- Clayton Kershaw was supposed to send the Dodgers to Game 7. He was supposed to pitch as well as he has for the past 6 1/2 months, and that was supposed to be enough to force a deciding National League Championship Series game.
Instead, the presumptive NL Cy Young Award winner was barely recognizable in a season-ending 9-0 loss to the Cardinals on Friday, giving up seven runs over four-plus innings of one of his worst career starts.
"I just didn't pitch good," Kershaw said. "I don't have an answer. I just wasn't good enough."
Immediately upon falling into 2-0 and 3-1 NLCS holes earlier this week, the Dodgers pointed to Game 6 as their goal-within-a-goal. If only they could reach Friday with their best pitcher on the mound, they felt confident of swinging the series back in their favor. Kershaw even burgeoned that hope early, warming up "great," according to catcher A.J. Ellis, and working around a pair of hits and a pair of wild pitches to deliver consecutive game-opening scoreless innings.
But everything unraveled after Matt Carpenter doubled with one out in the third on an 11-pitch at-bat -- "a battle," as the Cardinals second baseman described it afterward. The next batter, Carlos Beltran, drilled an RBI single off Mark Ellis' glove, moving to second base on Yasiel Puig's throw home. Kershaw rebounded with a strikeout of Matt Holliday, but Yadier Molina smoked a two-out single into center field to double the margin.
Next came a single from David Freese, followed by the plate appearance that seemed to irk Kershaw most: a six-pitch walk to Matt Adams on consecutive 94 mph fastballs, several of which appeared to skim the outer or lower limits of the strike zone. Visibly upset throughout that plate appearance, Kershaw gave up a game-breaking single to the next batter, Shane Robinson, almost immediately after losing Adams. He was unwilling to discuss the sequence after the game.
Tough time to struggle
Starters to allow seven or more earned runs in less than five innings pitched in a decisive postseason game
Courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info
"There's no point in talking about it now," said Kershaw, who threw 48 of his 98 pitches in the third inning alone. "It's over with."
Still, had he stopped the damage there, Kershaw may have given the Dodgers some chance at a comeback. Instead, his season ended after three consecutive hits to open the fifth, including Adams' RBI double.
"Clayton Kershaw [is] one of the best pitchers in the game, no doubt about that," Beltran said. "This time he was a little bit off, but that doesn't mean anything. He's still a competitor. I guess we fought."
Most remarkable was the contrast between Kershaw's Game 6 meltdown and his superlative summer, which will almost certainly earn him his second Cy Young Award at age 25. Winner of 16 games with a league-leading 1.83 ERA and 232 strikeouts, Kershaw carried that into October by posting a 0.47 ERA over his first three playoff starts.
He was as sure a thing as the Dodgers had on their roster -- perhaps even as sure a thing as the Dodgers have ever had. Consider that before the third inning Friday, no team had batted around on Kershaw since Aug. 14, 2009, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, a span of 968 1/3 total innings. Consider that opponents had been 2-for-30 with runners in scoring position against him this postseason, before going 3-for-5 in the third. Consider that the four earned runs against Kershaw that inning were more than he had given up over his previous six starts combined.
Consider that Kershaw had not allowed more than five earned runs in a game since a July 24, 2012, loss to -- who else? -- the Cardinals.
He was the Dodgers' unstoppable force, even pitching Game 4 of the NL Division Series against the Braves on short rest -- adding to a workload that he insisted did not affect him. But Kershaw will not easily forget the memories of his worst start in 15 months, which was supposed to unfold so much differently.
"You're optimistic coming into this game, hoping to look at a Game 7," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "You've got Clayton going, so it's funny how the season, everything you do, comes to a screeching halt."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.