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The pitcher dealt with a nagging arm injury last year—ultimately causing him to miss the playoffs and log the fewest innings he had in any full season since he was a rookie. In the winter, he needed to reconfigure his offseason program for additional treatment and rest, and when he was able to start working out again, there was no structured opportunity for him to do so: A lockout meant that spring training had to be pushed back and then cut short. He did not have a chance to be fully stretched out by Opening Day. Now, it’s a week later and he’s in his first start of the season, and he’s dealing. But he just finished the seventh inning at 80 pitches—more than he has thrown yet at any point this spring.
You’re his manager. What do you do?
The decision might seem obvious: You pull him. Of course you pull him! He’s not stretched out and is coming off an injury. It’s only April, and this is what it means to play the long game. Your team is winning, 3–0 when the pitcher finished the seventh and 6–0 when he would have returned for the eighth, and that makes the call even clearer. This is just the practical thing to do. It is not about analytics or efficiency or rationalizing the existence of overstuffed bullpens. It is not really about modern baseball, or how the game is played nowadays, or any of the big, existential questions that hang around the sport. It is just about what to do with a guy who has not yet had a chance to build up his workload for a Wednesday afternoon in April. The pitcher went only five innings at most in the spring, and today he has gone seven, a marked stretch. So: You pull him.
Which, again, is a decision that might seem obvious, unless there is some kind of wild, historical caveat. Like, for instance, if he is in the middle of a perfect game in which he has struck out 13. Then? Well. It’s not so obvious then.
But that is where Clayton Kershaw and Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts found themselves against the Twins on Wednesday. After seven innings, Kershaw was perfect. At 80 pitches, he’d thrown more than he had at any point this spring, but less than anything that would have jumped out as a clear breaking point. He did not appear to be significantly losing steam. And so in a career that has already included just about everything—three Cy Youngs, an MVP, a World Series—here was a chance for the greatest of his generation to nail down arguably the greatest single achievement for a pitcher. He looked as good as he ever has: This was not just vintage Kershaw, but dazzling Kershaw, perfect Kershaw. He’d struck out 13! It was not just an opportunity for a perfect game but for one of the best games in recent history.
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And, of course, Kershaw didn’t have a chance to finish it. The decision to pull him after seven innings made sense in terms of health. It made sense in terms of his workload and the abbreviated spring and what it meant to think ahead for the rest of the season. Yet that didn’t make it sting any less: There is no space reserved for sense in a perfect game. When does perfection ever make sense? In the 233,345 major league games that took place before Wednesday, 23 were perfect, a tiny, disparate group that holds both pitchers who were born to be remembered and those who would have otherwise been forgotten. There is no sense in trying to knit them all together. A great performance has to be governed by some kind of logic. But a perfect one? That’s ruled by kismet. There is no room for sense here.
Yet the Dodgers went with sense Wednesday. Because they are the Dodgers—an organization that has made an art out of analytical decision-making, a manager that already was the only one to pull a pitcher with a perfect game after seven innings, a convenient illustration of so many of the biggest trends in modern baseball—it was easy for the decision to feel like a symbol of something else. But it was just what made sense. They put reliever Alex Vesia on the mound to start the eighth; he promptly gave up a single, ridding the afternoon of the cursed, bizarre phrase “combined perfect game,” and Los Angeles went on to beat Minnesota, 7–0. There were no signs of annoyance from Kershaw. He did not appear frustrated in the dugout, and afterward, he said all the right things.
“It’d be special,” he said of a perfect game. “But at the end of the day, those are individual things. Those are selfish goals, and we’re trying to win. That’s really all we’re here for. As much as I would’ve wanted to do it, I’ve thrown 75 pitches in a sim game, and I hadn’t gone six innings, let alone seven. Sure, I would’ve loved to do it. But maybe I’ll get another chance.”
The answer turned on the word selfish. It was the sort of humble, team-first line that reporters have heard so much over the last decade from Kershaw. (He later said that he wished he could have done it only for his catcher, Austin Barnes, realizing what it would have meant for him.) But it felt somewhat curious here. Perfection might be individual, yes, but does that make it necessarily selfish? And what might that reflect when turned on everyone else—everyone watching, hoping, dreaming? Was it selfish to want to see a chance at perfection? Was it selfish to think of the injury, the workload, the rest of the season and still wish for history?
Maybe. But who is a perfect game for, anyway? It might be just as easy to conceive of it as selfless rather than selfish: a great communal gift as much as a great individual achievement. Everything on Wednesday made sense. But perhaps it is not selfish—not unreasonable—to wish that everything did not have to make so much sense all the time.
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