Clayton Kershaw was pitching a masterpiece for the Los Angeles Dodgers last week. Through seven innings he hadn’t allowed a baserunner. He was pitching a perfect game, one of the greatest feats in sports.
Kershaw had thrown just 80 pitches — an average of just 11.4 pitches per inning. He’d struck out 13 of 21 batters. He was in the groove.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts sent him to the showers. The Dodgers used two other pitchers to finish a 7-0 win over the Minnesota Twins. They allowed only one hit, which might indicate the likelihood of Kershaw continuing his mastery of the Twins batters.
Pulling Kershaw from the game at that point was the equivalent of taking away Van Gogh’s canvas in the middle of rendering “Starry Starry Night.”
Or pulling McCartney off the piano in the middle of writing “Long and Winding Road.”
What if they had stopped Secretariat at the eighth furlong of the Belmont Stakes?
How could the Dodgers deny Kershaw a rare chance at making history? There have been only 23 perfect games in 150 years of Major League Baseball. That’s 23 out of some 218,500 games. The last perfect game occurred in 2012. For some strange reason, there were three of them that year — and seven from 2004-12 — but years and years can pass between perfect games.
At first glance the decision to rob Kershaw of his perfect game was an outrage, but there were two sides to the decision.
On one side: What are the odds 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 and numbers and milestones.
“I’d like to think that we’re all fans of baseball,” Roberts told ESPN. “I know I am. And so fans want to see great moments. I absolutely understand that. Clayton wants to see a great moment for himself, personally. But I can’t manage a ball club and players with my fan cap on.”
The other side: Roberts was protecting his pitcher. He made a cold, calculated business decision to pull his star pitcher from the game.
It was just bad timing and the circumstances wrong. Kershaw was coming back from an injury. He was placed on injured reserve last July with pain in his left forearm. He returned in September, but elbow pain forced him to miss the playoffs.
The game in Minnesota last week marked his first start of the season. The game was in chilly Minnesota. The Dodgers planned to limit Kershaw’s early-season pitch count and allow him gradually to build up his arm again, giving him the best chance to play the entire season.
“Yeah, I have to make a tough decision,” Roberts said afterward. “But ultimately it wasn’t as tough as perceived. If you’re talking about his next start, it’d be a little bit tougher. Then the next start, it would have been more tough, and I’d probably have given him a leash. But this first start, it was — I don’t want to say a no-brainer — but it was actually pretty easy.”
Roberts’ decision recalls a similar situation in 1965, when Gale Sayers, the Chicago Bears’ sensational rookie running back, scored six touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers, tying a league record. Late in the game, the Bears drove to the goal line again, giving Sayers a chance for a record seventh touchdown, which to this day still has not been accomplished. Three players are stuck at six touchdowns — Dub Jones (1951), Sayers (1965) and Alvin Kamara (2020). Sayers had the chance to set a record that might last forever.
But Sayers was on the sidelines at that point in the game. Bears fans chanted for Sayers to return to the field, but coach George Halas kept him on the sideline, allowing running back Jon Arnett to score on a two-yard touchdown run.
“I’d never have forgiven myself if I allowed him to stay in and he was seriously injured,” Halas explained afterward. Three years later Sayers suffered a knee injury that hastened the premature end of his career.
Kershaw isn’t the first pitcher to be pulled from a perfect game in the late innings. He’s not even the first to be pulled by Roberts in that situation. In 2016, Rich Hill, Kershaw’s former teammate, had a perfect game going through seven innings (and 89 pitches) against the Miami Marlins, and Roberts pulled him from the game because of a blister on one of the pitcher’s fingers. Afterward, Roberts said the decision made him “sick to his stomach.” Hill recently told Masslive.com, “It was difficult to go through as a player, to be in a situation like that.”
As for Kershaw, he was wistful after the game, but concluded, “at the end of the game in the moment, it felt like the right decision.” The next day, he told ESPN, “If I was a fan, I would want to see somebody finish the game. From a fan’s perspective, I do feel bad for that. I wish I could’ve done it. But yesterday wasn’t the day.”