WASHINGTON, D.C.—Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw was feeling reflective the day before he was to start Game 1 of the NLDS against the Nationals.
Although he is the best pitcher of his generation, one of the best of all time, the postseason has not come easy for him. As a 21-year-old in 2009 who had just finished the regular season with a 2.79 ERA, he gave up nine runs in 13 1/3 innings over three NLDS and NLCS games, two of them losses. At 25, coming off a campaign that earned him his second Cy Young Award in three years (in the third, he finished second) and the ERA and strikeout crowns, he lost the deciding Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS to the Cardinals, allowing seven runs over four innings. Twelve months later, having just finished yet another Cy Young-winning year, he had a 7.82 ERA in his two playoff starts. This season, although he missed two months with a herniated disk in his back, might have been his finest yet.
So he was honest when a reporter asked him at his pre-series press conference about the stress he was under.
“I think in the past I’ve definitely felt that pressure more,” Kershaw said. “But this year’s been a little bit different for me, just as far as having to watch on the sidelines for two months. Understanding how good our team is; you know, I think it’s really kind of hit home for me a little bit as I’ve come back that I can definitely be a part of this and definitely help and definitely be a factor in winning. But I don’t have to be the factor. We have so many guys that can do so many different things that it’s not all on me. You know, obviously I have a job to do and I understand that, but we’re such a team that I feel like I can rely on those guys and, likewise, they can rely on me. It’s just a different feeling than I’ve had in the past.”
And he was right. He kept things close in Game 1, holding the Nationals to three runs through five sometimes-difficult innings en route to a 4–3 win, but he struggled to find his release point with his slider, and his curveball did not have its typical bite. He hit 95 in his final inning, but Kershaw was not by any means the bulldozer he usually is. Fortunately, he didn’t have to be. The offense collected eight hits and the bullpen got 12 outs to seal the victory and erase Washington’s home-field advantage in the series.
“We needed everybody,” Kershaw said after the game. “It was fun to watch.”
It did seem like every player had a hand in the victory. Facing Nats ace Max Scherzer, who led the league this year in home runs allowed with 31, the offense decided to be aggressive. Shortstop Corey Seager, a virtual lock for NL Rookie of the Year, jumped on the first pitch he saw and hit it out of the ballpark. Two innings later, second baseman Chase Utley singled in a run, and then with Seager on first, third baseman Justin Turner went yard as well.
Well aware that Washington stole the sixth-most bases in the majors this year (121), catcher Yasmani Grandal paid close attention to the men on first all game. His vigilance paid off when Daniel Murphy tried to swipe second with one out in the seventh and Grandal gunned him down. Relievers Joe Blanton, Grant Dayton and Pedro Baez combined for 2 1/3 hitless innings, and closer Kenley Jansen, who got the Nationals’ famously patient hitters (they took pitches 55.4% of the team this year, good for third in baseball) to swing at 14 of his 27 pitches, came in for five outs. It wasn’t the means the Dodgers expected, but they put together the end they wanted.
“We’re gonna have days where our starters are just not there 100% and the offense and the defense need to pick it up and the bullpen needs to do its job,” said Grandal. “I feel like that’s what we did today. We got a good team win, and we’ll turn the page.”
And perhaps that was the best result of all: the knowledge that a team that for so long has been defined by Clayton Kershaw can win without him.