ATLANTA – The greatest pitcher in baseball looks like a guy who'd swipe the last piece of pizza from your fridge before crashing on your couch.
Clayton Kershaw made himself at home in Atlanta on Thursday night in a 6-1 Dodgers victory, thoroughly dominating the Braves in a career-to-date-defining performance in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. Kershaw threw 124 pitches over seven full innings, and Atlanta only managed to hit three of them safely as Los Angeles ripped home-field advantage away from the Braves.
After the game, Kershaw, wearing jeans and a sleeveless Dodger blue T-shirt, looked the very soul of bro relaxation. And why not? He'd struck out 12 Braves, including eight of his last nine outs, and appeared in total command of his entire game. He ran up a high pitch count early, but settled into the kind of groove that makes a manager's job very easy.
"With Clayton, you're not quite sure [how he'll handle the middle innings], but there's a lot of times that … all of a sudden, the innings will come quick," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "As the game goes, he seems to get stronger and stronger."
"This is what you get taken out early [in] the season for, to be ready for games like this," Kershaw said. "I was planning to get through at least seven or eight the whole night."
Kershaw's high pitch count, in fact, was exactly what the Braves had hoped to create, but their goal brought to mind Mike Tyson's old line about everybody having a plan until you get punched in the face.
"That was our game plan," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Make him pitch a little bit … and when you look up and you see 77 pitches in the third inning, you feel like you have a chance. But he is what he is, he turned it up the next three or four innings, and we didn't really get good swings at him."
It's fitting that Kershaw threw a work of October art in Atlanta, home of some of the most dominant pitching in recent baseball history. During the regular season, Kershaw became the first pitcher since former Brave Greg Maddux to win baseball's overall ERA title three consecutive seasons. Thursday night marked Kershaw's first postseason win in his sixth appearance, three times as a starter.
"It might be the best [game I've ever pitched] just because it's my first postseason win," Kershaw said. "We got to win in one other game that I pitched that I started in, but this one definitely has special meaning to me for sure."
"They're a great team," Braves starter Kris Medlen said, "and when you have an opposing pitcher on the mound who is as good as Kershaw, there's not a lot of room for error, and I had a lot of error tonight."
Medlen, who's been one of the best pitchers in baseball the last season and a half, surrendered five runs on nine hits and got chased without recording an out in the fifth.
For the Braves as a team, the postseason futility continues at full cry. The Braves haven't won a playoff game since 2010, haven't won a playoff game at home since 2005, and haven't won a playoff series since 2001. The row of yellow playoff flags running along the second deck in left field remains impressive, but the glory days of the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz 1990s feel more distant than ever. Atlanta now faces the daunting task of winning at least one game in Los Angeles, and would have to face the Kershaw buzzsaw once more before moving on.
The Dodgers, though, have hit the postseason in stride. The troubles of earlier this year that had Mattingly on the hot seat seem like a distant memory. Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig delivered as expected, with Puig's aggressive baserunning leading to the Dodgers' first run, and Gonzalez's third-inning homer proving an early backbreaker. L.A. now sends Zack Greinke to the hill Friday against Mike Minor, and with Atlanta already on its heels, the odds of the Dodgers advancing seem good.
At the forefront of the Dodgers' attack stands Kershaw. On Thursday night, the longer he pitched, the stronger he grew. If that works on a macro level, with Kershaw gaining both confidence and experience as he works deeper into October, he could be pitching for another three weeks, and the Dodgers could be in line for some new hardware.
If that happens, make him buy the pizza.