Clayton Kershaw Allowed a Grand Slam by Jeff Sullivan September 19, 2017 Give it enough chances and baseball will make you look bad, because at the end of the day, baseball’s a fair game, sufficiently fair that everyone is bound to think it isn’t every once in a while. Baseball can be mean to players at the bottom of the roster, sure, but baseball can also be mean to, say, Miguel Cabrera. It can be mean to Mike Trout! And it can be mean to Clayton Kershaw. Monday evening, it made Kershaw look bad in the blink of an eye. In his career, when the bases have been loaded, Kershaw hasn’t been perfect. Baseball makes it impossible to be perfect. Kershaw had allowed bases-loaded hits. He’d allowed a bases-loaded double, five times. He’d issued a bases-loaded walk, six times. Once, Kershaw was responsible for a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch. Another time, he was responsible for a bases-loaded balk. For good measure, there was also once a bases-loaded wild pitch. Even before Monday, with the bases loaded, Kershaw had made mistakes. But he’d never allowed a home run. When Kershaw woke up Monday morning, he didn’t know how it felt to give up a big-league grand slam. When he went to bed, it was probably all he could think about. Aaron Altherr. Officially, Aaron Altherr is the reason Kershaw can’t ever catch up to Jim Palmer. Palmer is in the Hall of Fame, and at least as far as any of us know, he holds the record for most plate appearances with the bases loaded without giving up a grand slam. There should be an obvious link between this statistic and being a good pitcher in general, but it’s not that selective. Freddy Garcia never gave up a grand slam. Matt Cain still hasn’t. Mike Fetters never did. Juan Cruz and Zach Duke and Shigetoshi Hasegawa never did. I guess Duke isn’t necessarily all out of chances. Anyway, it’s not like Kershaw has suddenly been exposed. He hasn’t been excluded from an elite-level group. The Kershaw you knew last week is still the Kershaw who’s around. He’s simply lost one of his fun facts. Some time ago, Kershaw surpassed 100 career bases-loaded plate appearances. He made it through those without a dinger. But fun facts can collapse without a moment’s notice. The Dodgers led the Phillies 2-0 in the bottom of the sixth. When Altherr came to the plate, there were already two out. Kershaw had cleared 90 pitches, so he didn’t have a whole lot left to do. If he could just retire Altherr, he could’ve logged six scoreless innings. Kershaw was a quality pitch away from a gem. He tried to throw that pitch at 1-and-1. Kershaw didn’t know right away. He knew almost right away, and that’s a textbook no-doubter, but still, after contact, Kershaw looked up, momentarily hopeful. The camera just catches the drop of his head. With one pitch and one swing, Kershaw’s game ERA went from zero zero zero to 6.35. I’m not sure if he realized right then the statistical fact of what had happened, but Kershaw, at least, felt like he hadn’t before. Oh, he’s given up hits. Big hits. Kershaw’s been punched in the gut some number of times. But yielding a grand slam is a very specific and particular disappointment. Baseball is nothing if not a machine designed to allow players to familiarize themselves with new ways they’ll let themselves down. Perhaps there was some sort of miscommunication? Just the pitch before, Austin Barnes had been crossed up. Barnes prepared to catch a high fastball, and Kershaw instead threw a curve in the dirt. The ball got away, and the runners nearly advanced. Yet, this wasn’t the fault of a communication issue. As Kershaw looked in at 1-and-1, Barnes took a moment to chat. There was no mistaking the idea. Kershaw and Barnes agreed on a slider. If Barnes’ glove is any indication, the slider was supposed to be down. The slider wasn’t down. Belt-high, middle-in. The way Altherr attacked, it seems like maybe the worst pitch imaginable. Grand slams have a way of making pitches look like the worst pitches imaginable. Here, though, we come to something, a crucial point, an absolutely fundamental point that everyone who cares even a little bit about baseball needs to understand about pitching. That point: Pitchers are constantly getting lucky. Or, to flip it around, pitchers are commonly getting unlucky. Pitchers get hurt, and pitchers also get off the hook. The results of their pitching aren’t just up to them. Slider, belt-high, middle-in. A bad pitch that led to Kershaw’s first-ever grand slam allowed. In the fourth inning, Kershaw threw Altherr that same pitch. A harmless foul ball. Also, in the second inning, Kershaw threw Altherr that same pitch. An easy grounder for an out. Twice, Altherr rolled over on the pitch. Once, he made about the best contact he could. No pitch is ever an automatic out, and no pitch is ever an automatic homer. Baseball is fair, but you can see why people often don’t believe it. Given enough opportunities, baseball will balance itself out, but the timing of when it chooses to do that can make a whole world of difference. The Phillies might feel like baseball’s been mean. It’s never much fun to have the second-worst record. Yet the Phillies, at least, have a roster that fully understands the bigger picture, and for now, they’re mostly just playing to learn. Playing to learn, and playing the underdog. When you’re a team that’s young and hungry, you can’t not get up for a game against Clayton Kershaw, and when Altherr connected in the sixth, the whole dugout came to life. I’m not entirely clear, so there’s some chance I’m wrong, but I think the player there losing his mind is Nick Pivetta. Now, that would be Nick Pivetta with the 6.57 season ERA. But that would also be Nick Pivetta who had been suddenly put in position to earn his sixth win. Pivetta wasn’t going to pitch any longer. He’d put in his six innings. He left with his team behind 2-0, facing the best pitcher on the planet. Say what you will about what a pitcher win means, but Pivetta felt that victory from the top of his head to the skin of his toes. Aaron Altherr hit a grand slam, and in the first big-league season of Pivetta’s career, he out-pitched and he beat Clayton Kershaw. Statistics aren’t only for fans. In a flash, Kershaw lost the shutout. He lost the lead, and he ultimately lost the game. Kershaw had been hurt with the bases loaded before, but he’d never before suffered the worst possible outcome. The stadium roared, and it roared louder still when Altherr emerged again from the dugout stairs. As the fans applauded for the curtain call, Kershaw threw his next pitch. It was an inside slider, with perfect execution.