Clayton Kershaw believed, and now he’s back.
He’s back to where he was three years ago, before the presumed theft of his signs and championship.
Kershaw dominated the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of the World Series, just as he did the cheating Houston Astros in 2017. With an 8-3 victory, the Dodgers once again have a one-game-to-none advantage on their sport’s greatest stage.
Except this time, the assumption is that their opponents haven’t set up a sign-stealing apparatus. The Rays certainly didn’t hit as if they did on Tuesday night when they managed only a run and two hits in six innings against Kershaw.
If Kershaw takes the mound again in this series, he will do so without the other team knowing what type of pitch he is about to deliver.
By next week, Kershaw could have the moment of October glory for which he has waited his entire career. The Dodgers could win the championship for which they have waited 31 years.
“It’s hard not to think about, you know, winning,” Kershaw said. “It’s hard not to think about what that might feel like. But I think that’s what I have to do.”
There was a similar excitement after Kershaw shut down the Astros in his first-ever World Series start, a seven-inning masterpiece in which he struck out 11 and limited the Astros to a run.
The performance became regrettably overlooked after Kershaw melted down in Game 5 of that series when he failed to protect leads of four and three runs at the Astros’ home stadium of Minute Maid Park. While Major League Baseball released a report over the winter that didn’t mention specific instances when the Astros cheated, commissioner Rob Manfred said in the spring they continued to illegally relay stolen signs throughout the 2017 postseason.
Presented with an opportunity Tuesday to create another potential signature postseason moment, Kershaw delivered.
That required him to overcome a shaky first inning. He allowed two of the Rays’ first three hitters to reach base, but didn’t let either of them score, as he struck out Hunter Renfroe and fielded a weak dribbler by Manuel Margot.
“I was fortunate to make it through that first inning,” Kershaw said. “I was bouncing my slider like 48 feet and didn’t quite make the adjustment until the second inning.”
Once he did, he was practically unhittable.
“His slider, cutter, whatever you want to call it, it was great tonight,” Rays catcher Mike Zunino said. “He was able to throw it to that inner third, to the corner, was able to expand off of it, was able to flip the curveball in. When he can locate [the slider] in, it’s a tough pitch to get on a plane with and drive as it’s bearing in on your hands.”
From the second inning to the sixth, Kershaw retired 15 of 16 batters. The lone exception was Kevin Kiermaier, who launched a solo home run in the fifth inning to reduce the Dodgers’ lead to 2-1. The Dodgers scored four runs in the bottom of the inning to extend their lead.
Kershaw had a pitch count of only 78 through six innings, but manager Dave Roberts decided to remove him after Max Muncy doubled in Justin Turner to increase their edge to 8-1 in the bottom of the inning.
“Just figured he was going to be on regular [rest] for his next start, so you’ve got an 8-1 lead and with nine outs to go, we’ve got to be able to protect it,” Roberts said.
The plan is for Kershaw to pitch Game 5 — unless the Dodgers sweep the series, which looks entirely possible.
The Rays have the kind of feast-or-famine lineup the Dodgers used to field in October before they traded for Mookie Betts, as they strike out a lot and are overly dependent on home runs. Kershaw registered eight strikeouts, increasing his career playoff total to 201. Only Justin Verlander has more with 205.
Kershaw, 32, is pitching in his 10th postseason. At this point in his career, he said he was grateful to be pitching in games as important as the World Series for a team as powerful as the Dodgers.
“Just so thankful,” he said. “It’s incredible. Nothing is deserved in this game. Just because you’re here, just because you’re on a team, you don’t deserve to be a part of anything like this. It’s so special. It’s pretty awesome.”
Eight months ago, Kershaw reported to spring training in the wake of the revelations about the Astros.
There, he restated his love of a game that betrayed him.
Asked how he could fully recommit to pursuit that was proven to be compromised, Kershaw said he thought back to when he was in middle school and high school. Baseball’s steroid scandal had forced him to reconsider how he felt about the game.
“I just wanted to play baseball,” he said.
This year too he just wanted to play. So, he did, hopeful Major League Baseball would enforce its rules against electronically aided sign stealing. He placed his faith in himself and in his team.
He’s now three wins away from a championship.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.