Clayton Kershaw Proves He’s Ready to Dominate on Baseball’s Biggest Stage

Clayton Kershaw took the mound for his first World Series start amid every conceivable type of heat.

He responded by barely breaking a sweat.

This isn't literally true, mind you. Pitching is hard work, even for three-time Cy Young winners like Kershaw, and the game-time temperature Tuesday at Dodger Stadium for Game 1 of the 2017 World Series between his Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros checked in at 103 degrees. That's a new postseason record.

Figuratively, though, Kershaw was cooler than the proverbial cucumber. The left-hander spearheaded the Dodgers' 3-1 win with 11 strikeouts scattered across seven innings.

"I'll take it," the 29-year-old said afterward, according to Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times.

A leadoff home run by Chris Taylor in the first inning and a two-run homer by Justin Turner in the sixth inning provided the offense for the Dodgers, but at no point did Kershaw have a large margin for error with which to work.

He had the difficult task of matching Dallas Keuchel, a fellow Cy Young-winning lefty, pitch for pitch. To boot, the offense taking its hacks against Kershaw ranks among the best ever.

The baseball gods themselves could not have crafted a more daunting proving ground for Kershaw's first-ever World Series assignment. And in light of his personal history in October, anyone who was feeling fatalistic about his chances can be forgiven.

Kershaw entered the 2017 playoffs with a 4.55 ERA in 18 career postseason appearances. He was the losing pitcher in three of Los Angeles' last four playoff exits.

He made some forward progress against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Division Series and against the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series, but not without stumbles. 

The good: He allowed just seven runs in three starts.

The bad: He walked five, allowed six homers and pitched into the seventh only once.

In all, he was nothing like the Kershaw who's dominated the regular season like nobody else since 2011. And certainly nothing like any of the great postseason pitching performances in recent memory—a la Madison Bumgarner in 2014.

It's hard to imagine a more potent threat to send Kershaw's modest postseason progress careening back in the other direction than the Astros offense. Among the ways it became historically great was avoiding strikeouts and crushing lefty starters better than any other team.

"It's the best lineup that we've seen all year," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, per McCullough. "They slug. They don't strike out. They're athletic. They steal bases. There's so many ways they can beat you."

In actually watching Kershaw go to work against the Astros, however, you'd never know it.

He struck out four Astros in his first trip through their lineup and ultimately whiffed 11 of the first 19 he faced. In so doing, he set a new high-water mark for strikeouts against this seemingly un-strikeout-able offense.

It's not a question of what Kershaw had working, but of what he didn't have working. He was his vintage self, throwing his fastball for strikes in all quadrants of the zone and snapping off electric sliders and knee-buckling curveballs.

Via MLB, here's a sampling:

The only time he was remotely in trouble was in the seventh. The inning itself brought nothing but trouble in past Octobers, and he seemed doomed to more of the same when he gave up a leadoff hit to Jose Altuve and then watched Corey Seager fumble a potential double play ball two batters later.

Instead, it was much ado about nothing. Kershaw escaped that jam and called it a day after 83 pitches.

Should he have gone back out for the eighth? There's an argument in favor of the affirmative, but the arguments for the negative can be summed up like so: Why risk it?

Kershaw had already pitched seven innings in extreme heat, and even going that far was no small feat relative to his recent workloads. Since he missed over a month with a back injury in July and August, the Dodgers have let him pitch into the eighth only once.

The Dodgers also have a steady bullpen for a change, and they know full well it's an excuse not to push Kershaw as far as they used to in October. To quote pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, via Jenifer Langosch of

"I think a lot of them you have to put the blame on the organization and us. Every time in the past, we've asked him to come back on short rest. We've asked him to pitch out of the bullpen. We've asked him to pitch an extra inning or an extra batter that, if we had more depth or better relievers, he might not have been asked to do those things.

"Most of that shouldn't be on him."

In lieu of playing with fire by sending Kershaw back out there, Roberts gave the eighth inning to Brandon Morrow and the ninth inning to Kenley Jansen. His reward was six straight outs that sealed the Dodgers' first World Series win since their Game 5 clincher in the 1988 Fall Classic.

If the Dodgers win the next three games, the end of their 29-year championship drought will be made all the more impressive by how they needed to use baseball's most decorated ace only once.

It's either that, or they'll be able to run Kershaw back out for another start in Game 5 and, if needed, an appearance out of the bullpen in a decisive Game 7.

The fact he'll be well-rested in either scenario is indisputable. After what he did in Game 1, it also seems indisputable that he'll be ready to be the postseason ace everyone's been waiting for.


Data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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