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New School Managing Ruins Another Chance at History

Last week, on Wednesday April 13th, legendary pitcher and future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw took the mound for the first time this season. After retiring 21 straight batters, including 13 via strikeout, he was pulled from the game by Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. Kershaw was six outs away from a perfect game, and 2 strikeouts away from breaking the record for the most Ks in a Perfect Game.

We’ve seen an increasing trend of managers pulling starters with no-hitters or even perfect games in recent years. This is usually due to a high pitch count and trying to protect the starting pitcher. This is especially true with younger pitchers who haven’t really had their pitch counts pushed yet.

So what was Kershaw’s pitch count after his seventh and final inning? Surely it must have been well over 100, right? After all, Kershaw has routinely thrown over 100 pitches throughout his career, and has even stretched into the 130s on multiple occasions. He’s also a veteran pitcher with nearly 2,500 Major League innings under his belt. Surely with all those strikeouts his pitch count must have been very high, right?

Kershaw exited the game having thrown 80 pitches. 80. Not only was Kershaw nowhere near 100 pitches, he might have even finished the game with less, an extremely rare feat known as a Maddux.

Now, of course, there are some valid arguments for why Roberts pulled the plug on Kershaw’s chance at history. Firstly, Kershaw has been very injury-prone over the last several years, and he had already been seeing generally lower pitch counts because of that. Secondly, this was his first start of the season, and teams generally like to ease their pitchers in at the beginning of a new season. On top of this, given the abbreviated Spring Training due to the lockout, Kershaw and every other pitcher is behind where they would normally be at in terms of how stretched out they are. Given all this, one can understand why Roberts went into the game figuring to limit Kershaw to around 75-80 pitches.

A perfect game, however, is something that should change plans. A perfect game is no no-hitter. There have been 314 no-hitters in MLB history, and only 21 perfect games in the Modern Era. Similarly, while there were a record 9 no-hitters thrown last season, there has not been a perfect game since 2012. These feats are on entirely different levels.

Kershaw should know. In 2014 he threw a no-hitter against the Colorado Rockies. The game could’ve been perfect had there not been an error committed by the Dodgers. Kershaw was of course thrilled with his feat, but if there’s anyone who understands the true difference in legacy between the two achievements, it’s an all time great like Kershaw.

A perfect game is also much more sacred than a no-hitter. While there have been an increasing number of combined no-hitters over the last decade, all perfect games have been achieved by a single pitcher. Had the Dodgers bullpen been able to retire the final six batters in order, the legacy of perfect games would have been changed forever.

This did not happen however. Gary Sanchez singled with one out in the eighth inning and the perfect game and no-hitter simultaneously ended.

Nobody knows what would have happened if Kershaw was allowed to remain in the game. He easily could’ve lost the perfect game as the last few batters are by far the toughest to get through. At that point, nobody would have any problem with Kershaw being pulled, even if he only walked somebody (reducing the game to a no-hitter).

Nobody can say what the long term consequences of allowing Kershaw to finish the game would be. When aging veteran Johan Santana was allowed to throw 134 pitches to finish his no-hitter in 2012, he paid the price with a shoulder injury that would cost him the rest of his career. As badly as fans wanted a perfect game, nobody would want to see Clayton Kershaw sidelined again.

But would 20 or 30 pitches really make a difference? He’s thrown over 100 countless times, and was pitching with extreme efficiency. It seems like Roberts was taking quite the cautious approach.

It’s understandable: The Dodgers are the favorites to win the World Series this year, and neither Roberts nor Kershaw wants to do anything to jeopardize their chances. That’s likely why Kershaw sounded so content with the decision afterwards. Yet it seems difficult to imagine that a competitor with the resume of Kershaw wasn’t thinking about how he could’ve added a perfect game to his long list of accomplishments. This is especially true given the speculation that Kershaw may retire soon, as he re-signed with the Dodgers on a one year deal worth 17 million dollars plus incentives. This is far less than his previous 2 contracts that were worth over 30 million a year. It would’ve been very fitting for Kershaw to begin what could be his final season with a perfect game.

Ultimately, the Dodgers won the game. Baseball fans, however, lost, as did the game itself.

Seeing someone with the stature of Kershaw throw a perfect game would’ve created a flurry of media attention like nothing else could. Less than a week into the season, 2022 could have had its most outstanding moment: The greatest pitcher left in the game throwing the most perfect game ever.

This would’ve been great for the league, as it’s first perfect game in ten years, by a star pitcher no less, would’ve overtaken all NBA play-in talk and made baseball the focus of the day. It also would’ve been a great marketing opportunity for the league, as MLB generally focuses on its biggest stars, and few shine brighter than Kershaw.

Just letting Kershaw back out for the eighth would’ve generated enormous buzz, even if he ended up losing the perfect game. Baseball fans could’ve accepted if Kershaw couldn’t get through all 27 batters quite perfectly. But allowing no-name reliever Alex Vesia to lose it for Kershaw? That’s unacceptable.

If the Dodgers end up reigning supreme again in 2022, Kershaw, Roberts and their fans will likely all forget about this. But for the average baseball fan, this was a once in a generation opportunity to see a feat of greatness displayed only a few times in history.

Would Kershaw have finished the perfect game if given the opportunity? We’ll never know, and we’ll likely never get the chance to find out again.

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