This was Clayton Kershaw’s moment. His slider vaporized at home plate. His curveball buckled knees. As Rays manager Kevin Cash said, “You saw why he’s headed to the Hall of Fame.”
Did Kershaw instantly rewrite his complicated postseason legacy? Let’s tap the brakes on larger statements for the moment and savor seeing one of this generation’s greatest players performing at the highest level as the Dodgers defeated the Rays, 8-3, in Game 1 of the 2020 World Series on Tuesday night at Globe Life Field in Arlington.
With the stage large and the lights bright, Kershaw did that Kershaw thing the Dodgers have seen countless times the last 13 seasons. He had hitters swinging awkwardly and glancing toward the mound on their way back to the dugout. His fastball darted to every corner of the strike zone, a work of art.
In six innings, he struck out eight, walked one and allowed two hits, one of them a Kevin Kiermaier home run in the top of the fifth inning. Two of the first three Tampa Bay hitters reached base to open the game. Then Kershaw turned out the lights, retiring 13 in a row.
The left-hander got out of the first inning by feeding the Rays fastballs. Back in the dugout, Kershaw told catcher Austin Barnes not to worry, that he’d find his slider.
“I didn’t really have an alternative,” Kershaw said. “I kind of have to figure it out. After that, I kind of locked it in a little bit better. After that, I started feeling good about it.”
The Rays swung at 38 Kershaw pitches and missed 19 times, a 50% whiff rate, the highest of his career, including postseason. All 19 of those swings-and-misses came in the first five innings, tied for his third most through five innings in any start of his career.
“I thought his cutter, slider, whatever you want to call it, was great tonight,” Rays catcher Mike Zunino said. “He was able to throw it into that inner corner and then was able to expand off of it.”
Kershaw’s strikeout of Rays shortstop Willy Adames in the fifth inning was the 200th postseason strikeout of his career, moving him ahead of John Smoltz and into second place on the all-time list. He finished with 201 and trails only Justin Verlander (205).
Barnes noticed an extra edge as Kershaw warmed up in the bullpen.
“He kind of turned it on,” Barnes said. “I love when he gets there. He’s always intense, but he really wanted to come out here and throw well and set the tone for us -- and that’s exactly what he did.”
This game was the postseason dominance that has sometimes eluded Kershaw. Explanations? Everyone has a few. One is that his regular-season workload has at times been so heavy it left his tank empty in October. (Kershaw averaged 32 starts and 222 innings from 2010-15.)
To be fair, he has had some tremendous postseason performances. For instance, his first playoff start this year produced 13 strikeouts over eight scoreless innings against the Brewers.
And Dodgers fans will forever remember his getting the final two outs of a clinching 2016 National League Division Series victory over the Nationals, taking the mound for a relief appearance 48 hours after throwing 110 pitches.
Kershaw’s 4.31 postseason ERA before Tuesday was nearly two runs higher than his 2.43 career ERA. His 5.40 ERA in six World Series games prior to Game 1 was just as inexplicable.
This was Kershaw's 36th postseason appearance as part of 10 postseason teams. He said those numbers remind him how fortunate he has been to be part of a franchise that’s one of baseball’s gold standards for success.
“Yeah, so much gratitude,” he said. “I mean, just so thankful. It’s incredible. Nothing is deserved in this game. You don't deserve to be a part of anything like this. So it's just an opportunity, man. It's so special.”
With the Dodgers leading 8-1 after six innings on Tuesday, manager Dave Roberts got Kershaw out of the game after just 78 pitches. Now about that legacy thing.
Kershaw admitted it was impossible not to think ahead to the possibility of the Dodgers winning their first World Series in 32 years. With three NL Cy Young Awards, his résumé does not have many unfilled lines.
“Yeah, it's hard not to think about what that might feel like,” he said. “We just constantly have to put that in our brain -- win tomorrow, win tomorrow, win tomorrow. You do that three more times, and you can think about it all you want.”
Around the Dodgers, everyone has their favorite Kershaw story. On the eve of Game 3 of the 2018 World Series, he could be seen working alone in the outfield at a darkened Dodger Stadium, pushing himself through a series of drills.
When he accepted the 2014 NL Cy Young Award in New York, his speech was a rundown of his routine day. In doing so, he didn’t talk about himself as much as the trainers, coaches and teammates he credited for the role they played in his success.
He has come to represent the best of the Dodgers and the best of Major League Baseball, and that’s why so many people are rooting for him to take care of this last bit of unfinished business.
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