LOS ANGELES -- Dodger Stadium, Game 1 of the World Series. As stages go, the platform doesn’t get much bigger, the spotlight any brighter.
And the right man for the job, as he has been all month, was the Dodgers ace lefthander, Clayton Kershaw. Like his idol, Sandy Koufax, who was in attendance for Tuesday night’s opener, Kershaw turned in a brilliant performance that people will be talking about for a while, striking out 11 in seven innings to lead the Dodgers to a 3-1 victory over the Astros.
As much as the Dodgers are about justifying their $265-million payroll, and making sure their 104 wins during the regular season weren’t merely for show, Kershaw remains the flag-bearer for the franchise, a three-time Cy Young winner who always feels as if there’s still something more to prove.
But that something is shrinking fast, now that Kershaw has his first World Series victory, and the Dodgers are three wins away from their first championship since 1988. Kershaw became only the second pitcher to strike out 11 without a walk in the World Series — Brooklyn’s Don Newcombe is the other (1949, Game 1) — and the first to get to 11 since Randy Johnson whiffed that many for the Diamondbacks in Game 2 of the 2001 Fall Classic.
“I feel like every game is so much more magnified, you can’t really tell the difference between a postseason start or a World Series start,” Kershaw said. “But it definitely feels good to stay it was the World Series, and it feels good to say we’re 1 and 0.”
No one did more to make that happen Tuesday as Kershaw earned his seventh postseason victory, passing Burt Hooton for the top spot in Dodgers’ history. Despite temperatures soaring above triple-digits, Kershaw made his pregame walk to the bullpen in his Dodger blue warmup jacket, drawing some early applause from the crowd.
Once he took the mound, Kershaw threw the opening pitch at 5:11 p.m. Pacific Time and the official announcement was 103 — that’s degrees Fahrenheit, not miles per hour. Chavez Ravine simmered like a gigantic Crock-Pot, but Kershaw never seemed to break a sweat. The only real mistake of his 83-pitch outing was a 94-mph fastball to Alex Bregman, who smacked it into the leftfield pavilion for a tying home run to open the fourth inning.
“That’s why I gave up the homer,” Kershaw joked afterward. “It was too hot tonight.”
In watching Kershaw summarily dismiss the Astros, one after the other with dazzling efficiency, it was hard to believe this was the same pitcher that previously had been haunted by October demons for so long. Entering Game 1, his career playoff resume stood at 6-7 with a 4.40 ERA, hardly stats befitting the sport’s most dominant starting pitcher.
Once Kershaw got going Tuesday, however, those numbers were inconsequential. He retired the first seven straight before Josh Reddick — the former Dodger — lined a single to rightfield. After the Bregman blast, Kershaw actually appeared to get better, whiffing the heart of the Houston order — Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel — on 13 pitches.
That put Kershaw at eight Ks through only four innings, a ridiculous clip against an Astros team that was the hardest to strike out this season, doing so at a rate of only 17.3 percent. During these playoffs, Houston had struck out eight or more times in only four of their previous 11 games — and Kershaw did it to them less than halfway through Game 1.
“The depth of the slider, the fastball command, the back-door cutter, the curveball,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Tonight was one of those nights I think the first time in a while, where we’ve seen all three of his pitches synced up. He was throwing the baseball where he needed to, where he wanted to. This was a special night to Clayton.”
Special enough that Roberts could bottle whatever Kershaw had left at 83 pitches and save it for a potential Game 5. Armed with a killer bullpen, the Dodgers no longer need to push Kershaw to the breaking point, and that makes him even more lethal going forward.
“Could I have extended him?” Roberts said. “Absolutely.”
But any great showman knows it’s better to leave the audience begging for more, and the Astros fearing what Kershaw may do to them the next time.