The Day That Changed Baseball*

If the Los Angeles Dodgers win the 2017 World Series — they’re deadlocked 1-1- with the Houston Astros as I write this — you can chalk up the victory, at least in part, to the very strange thing that happened on May 29, 2009.

On that day, a comet appeared out of nowhere.

Clayton Kershaw, now the Dodgers’ ace but then just a promising twenty-year-old, hatched a new pitch, one so devastating it would begin cutting down opposing batters like Beowulf’s sword when he introduced it in his next start.

The team was in Chicago for a four-game road series against the Cubs. Kershaw wasn’t scheduled to pitch that weekend, so between games he reported to the Wrigley Field bullpen for a throwaround with backup catcher Mike Borzello. Borzello had ribbed the highly touted rookie that he had become “the most predictable pitcher in baseball.” Kershaw had an excellent fastball and a ridiculous curveball. But that was it. If batters guessed right they had a decent shot at making contact, since both pitches moved on a single plane: up and down. What Kershaw really needed, Borzello insisted, was another pitch he could throw for a strike, one that moved differently. In the Cubs’ bullpen, on that flat ground, Kershaw decided to try a slider.

In terms of velocity and movement, a slider falls somewhere between a fastball and a curveball. The difference is, the slider moves across the plate, tight in on the hands of a right-handed batter.

Kershaw had never actually thrown one before.

The big man held the ball with his index and middle finger on the outer seam, flamingoed into his windup, right leg cocked high, and delivered. The ball ghosted across the plate, left to right, five inches of lateral movement, easy.

“Oh my god,” Borzello said.

Russell Martin, the Dodgers starting catcher, used the loftiest adjective in baseball: “Nasty.”

Kershaw threw another slider. Just as nasty. Then another. Even nastier. Each time the ball stayed on line as it approached the plate, then juked out of the strike zone.  Kershaw threw slider after slider, making subtle refinements. That pitch, Borzello told Kershaw at the end of the session, is ready for prime time right now.

With this new weapon in his arsenal, Kershaw instantly reached another level of formidable. It was as if a three-dimensional sheriff just rode into Flatland and cleaned up the town, uncontested, because nobody could see his gun. By the end of the year, the slider had became Kershaw’s wipeout pitch. He went to it almost as much as his fastball. Batters whiffed at it far more often than they made any kind of contact at all. A complete pitcher now, Kershaw was suddenly on track to win the National League Cy Young Award two years later, his first of three (and counting).

“It’s funny how that pitch just opened everything up,” former Dodger catcher A.J. Ellis told a reporter recently. Borzello, that early-summer day in Chicago, had high hopes Kershaw’s slider would be a cool complement to his other skills.  “I didn’t know it was going to be maybe the most devastating pitch of the next eight years.”

There is no easy explanation for how Clayton Kershaw managed to craft such an artifact in a single day. I can find no horse’s mouth accounting of the process. (And since he’s rather busy right now, I’m not inclined to try to ask him myself.)

What matters is that it happened. And that, literally overnight, baseball had something else on its hands entirely.

* Of course, the day that really changed baseball was April 15, 1947, when  Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional sports. But that Big Day you already know about.

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