LOS ANGELES — Clayton Kershaw delivered one of the best starts of his career in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 3-0 win over the Atlanta Braves to take a 2-0 lead in the National League Division Series, that in many ways felt like normal. But this was not an ordinary week for the longtime Dodgers ace.
Kershaw pitched eight scoreless innings, allowing only two hits in the longest outing of his 20 career postseason starts.
“It’s impressive, it’s not a surprise. This guy is a potential Hall of Fame player,” manager Dave Roberts said. “To have the noise around him, but when it comes to his day to start and help his ball club win a game, I had no concern that anything was going to affect him.”
Friday night was Game 2 of the NLDS, one day later than usually starts in the playoffs. The noise was the Dodgers opting instead to start Hyun-jin Ryu in Game 1 on Thursday night, the first time since 2009 that a fully rested Kershaw didn’t start a series opener. The stated reason given was that it kept Ryu and Kershaw in order and gave them both five days rest from their previous start rather than four for Kershaw and six for Ryu.
Kershaw pitched most of the second half with at least an extra day of rest, doing so in 12 of his final 15 starts. He did well with extra rest, posting a 2.48 ERA in 17 starts, compared to a 3.21 ERA in nine starts on regular rest. Kershaw on Thursday wouldn’t elaborate on his conversation with Roberts and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, saying only, “They had their reasons, and I accepted them.”
On Friday, Kershaw was brilliant. After allowing a leadoff double to Braves young star Ronald Acuña Jr., Kershaw stranded him and retired his next 14 batters. Kershaw only struck out three, but took advantage of the Braves’ aggression all night, channeling Atlanta’s early-count swings into 12 ground ball outs.
“Soft contact and strikeouts. Obviously there’s going to be situations where you need strikeouts, but just get outs as fast as possible,” Kershaw said. “However I can do that in an efficient manner is great.”
Kershaw was very efficient in Game 2, needing only 85 pitches to complete his eight innings. He even took the mound for the ninth inning, but that was a ruse to get the Braves to pinch hit the right-handed Tyler Flowers for left-handed Lucas Duda. That brought in closer Kenley Jansen with a three-run lead, and got Kershaw another standing ovation as he exited the game.
“If we had the matchup I was going to go with Clayton for another hitter, but as far as finishing the game I didn’t think too much about it,” Roberts said.The biggest smile on Kershaw’s face after Game 2 was when his two kids joined him on the dais in the interview room. But a very close second was when he was asked if there was any satisfaction in his performance given the unusual circumstances of this week.
“Yeah, maybe. Maybe a tick, for sure,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.
The gambit to start Ryu in Game 1 and Kershaw in Game 2 even if surprising has worked out brilliantly for the Dodgers, who have yet to allow a run in this series and have a commanding series lead with a chance to finish off a sweep on Sunday in Atlanta. In Game 3 they send to the mound rookie Walker Buehler, who has been the Dodgers’ best starter down the stretch, with a 1.55 ERA in his last 12 starts.
The move was more symbolic than anything, with Kershaw no longer the obvious, automatic, no-matter-what choice to open a series. Though he is down about two miles an hour on his fastball in 2018 compared to previous years, he is diminished only relative to his own impossible standard. Kershaw is still an excellent starter, whose 2.73 ERA was better than all but nine major league pitchers with at least 100 innings. It was also his worst ERA in eight years.
Fair or not, Kershaw will always have his relatively spotty postseason marks — his lowered his postseason ERA to 4.08 with Friday’s gem, compared to his 2.39 regular season ERA — held against him until he wins a World Series. That’s just the way it is. But for one night at least we saw a vintage Kershaw performance that helps build toward that.