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BILL PLASCHKE

Joe Torre should have pulled Kershaw sooner

Manager says he has faith in the 21-year-old, but the pressure of the NLCS is different than a division-clinching game.

October 16, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

There was wildness, whiffling, waffling, a proud kid being whittled into an absolute wreck.

Clayton Kershaw walked the pitcher on four pitches. He walked the third baseman on four pitches. He put one on a tee for the catcher to crush into dark blue oblivion.

Did I say he walked the pitcher on four pitches?

With a 21-year-old sophomore bumping and staggering through a roomful of boos, the fifth inning Thursday contained every element of a textbook youthful playoff meltdown except for one.

An adult to stop it.

Where was Joe Torre?

How could the Dodgers' manager allow Kershaw to endure the kind of beating that haunted the Dodgers for the next two hours?

How could the same man who yanked a more settled Randy Wolf out of the fourth inning of the division series opener last week allow Kershaw to crumble one inning later in the opener of the championship series on Thursday?

Eight batters, three walks, three wild pitches, five runs, kid rocked, Dodgers floored, Phillies never trail again.

"It stinks," Kershaw said afterward, looking like a chastened schoolboy in a T-shirt, long shorts and distant stare. "It really hurts tonight."

Tonight? This could end up hurting all winter.

The Dodgers blew many chances in their 8-6 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies at a stunned-silent Dodger Stadium, but nothing felt so wrong as the teacher's handling of his prodigy.

Torre says he believes in Kershaw so much that he chose him to be the Game 1 starter even though the left-hander had started only one previous postseason game.

For several long agonizing minutes Thursday, he believed in him too much.

Cruising into the fifth with a 1-0 lead while giving up only one Phillies hit, Kershaw allowed a single to Raul Ibanez, then walked Pedro Feliz on five pitches.

Rick Honeycutt raced to the mound to counsel him.

Four pitches later, Carlos Ruiz crushed a three-run homer to flatten him.

With no more mound visits allowed, Kershaw stood alone, kicked the dirt, then promptly walked pitcher Cole Hamels on four pitches.

At that point, Torre needed to get him.

But at that point, Torre's resolve only strengthened.

"As far as I'm concerned, he's going to have to fight his way out of that, that early in the game," Torre said.

But it was not a fair fight. This was Clayton Kershaw, not Roger Clemens. This was a kid still too young to grow a proper beard. This was not El Duque.

This was all evidenced moments later when he walked Chase Utley after a seven-pitch battle, then gave up a two-run double to Ryan Howard to complete the five runs.

Utley and Howard are both left-handed hitters. Scott Elbert, a left-hander, was warm in the Dodger bullpen.

Why wasn't Elbert brought in to face them?

"I have to make a decision whether I want Scott Elbert to pitch to them, or Clayton Kershaw," Torre acknowledged.

"You know, to me he's a starting pitcher in Game 1, so I felt that's what I wanted to do."

A starting pitcher, certainly. An ace, no yet, no way.

"I felt I was doing OK, then it skyrocketed on me," said Kershaw, later adding, "I needed to make adjustments, but I just couldn't make them fast enough."

Sounds like the kid that he is, doesn't it?

Kershaw will probably be a No. 1 playoff starter for the next several years. But for now, he is still learning his craft, and still needs to be saved from himself.

Torre has talked about being inspired to start Kershaw in the opener after, among other things, watching him shut down the Colorado Rockies to clinch the division on the final Saturday of the regular season.

"If he doesn't win that game, we're tied with the Rockies," Torre said. "So as far as the pressure of the game, he can certainly handle it."

I was there on that Saturday night, and it was nothing like Thursday night, a steamy crowd roaring with every pitch, jeering with every mistake, waving towels and pounding feet and piling on.

There is division clinching pressure. But then there is this.

In the end, Kershaw gave up five runs, four hits and five walks in only 4 2/3 innings. And, oh yeah, the three wild pitches in one inning was a championship series record.

"It really did get out of hand," he admitted.

If Kershaw is pulled earlier, maybe the Dodgers give up only those three runs. Maybe, then, the battering that they gave the awful -- and I mean awful -- Phillies bullpen matters.

Maybe Manny Ramirez's two-run homer off his shoelaces in the fifth inning matters.

Maybe the three consecutive hits by James Loney, Ronnie Belliard and Russell Martin in the eighth inning matter.

If Kershaw is not allowed to let the roof collapse, maybe the fact that the Dodgers outhit the Phillies 14-8 while outplaying them in the field is enough to build a victory.

Instead, they are left to wonder how they could have lost home-field advantage so quickly, with today's afternoon game showing up so suddenly, and the Phillies' Pedro Martinez strutting back to town so gaudily.

"I think it's a good thing the second game comes so quickly, gives us a chance to forget this one," Kershaw said.

They can forget, but they must remember.

"He's a tough kid," Torre said of Kershaw.

In this misguided NLCS opener, Torre needed to be a tougher manager.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillPlaschke

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