LOS ANGELES—“There’s always butterflies,” Clayton Kershaw said on Monday, the day before his first-ever World Series start. “I think this is the time when the butterflies and anxiousness are more so. Once you throw the first pitch it all goes away. At least for me.”
If Kershaw felt nervous, then imagine the Astros’ state of mind. Tuesday would bring not just the first World Series game for each member of Houston’s lineup but, for four of them, their first-ever plate appearance against the best pitcher of his generation. It wasn’t as if the rest of the Astros’ starters had seen Kershaw much, even in an era of regular season interleague play. While Jose Altuve had a modest 15 career plate appearances against Kershaw, the remainder of the lineup—Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez, Brian McCann and Josh Reddick—had that many in total, including the playoffs. They’d combined for eight hits, one RBI, and zero homers.
That lack of familiarity was certainly one part of the recipe for the shortest World Series game since 1992. Kershaw and the Dodgers needed just two hours and 28 minutes to dispatch the Astros, 3-1, to take a 1-0 series lead–a blessedly short duration for a game whose first pitch came when thermometers read 103 degrees, a postseason record. That pitch was a 94-mile-an-hour fastball from Kershaw, in on the hands of Astros leadoff man George Springer, who fouled it off. Springer has now twice had the sensation of having his bat scrape one of Kershaw’s offerings; he’d later foul another one off on a night on which he went 0-for-4, with four strikeouts.
“When he can control his slider like that, and throw to either side of the plate, that’s why he is who he is,” Springer said. “Video doesn’t do it justice.”
The Astros, of course, were prepared with not just every possible video clip of Kershaw, but every other digestible data point, too: scouting reports; the advice of Carlos Beltran, who had faced him 31 times (thought with only 7 hits) because he used to be in the National League and is also old. They were still almost helpless, especially early on. Houston had the most difficult team to strike out in the league, but Kershaw whiffed half of the first ten Astros he faced, on his way to an 11 strikeout evening. He needed just 35 pitches to make it through three innings.
“Honestly, you can look at all the video you want,” said third baseman Alex Bregman. “Until you get in the box with somebody, you don’t really know what their stuff looks like out of their hand. I think with him, his little timing mechanism—where he drops down, kind of pauses, then goes to the plate—I think that played a little factor for some of us that never saw him before. You kind of had to sync up with that.”
It didn’t take Bregman long. The 23-year-old led off the top of the fourth with a homer, on a fastball that supposed to be up and in, but wasn’t enough of either. As Chris Taylor had started the game with a long home run off of Dallas Keuchel, Bregman’s shot tied it at 1-1. That, however, would prove Kershaw’s only mistake, while Keuchel would make one more: an 87-mile an hour cutter in the bottom of the sixth that Justin Turner hit for a two-run homer, providing the winning margin.
Modern baseball is usually complicated, particularly this time of year, a parade of pitching changes and long, slow at-bats. This wasn’t like that. Kershaw, facing a club who didn’t know him or what to do with him, worked seven innings in which he allowed three hits on 83 pitches. He completed one half inning, the top of the fifth, with six pitches thrown over the course of two minutes and five seconds, less than the time it takes to listen to ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ or most other popular songs that are known to be short. The setup man, Brandon Morrow, came in for a perfect eighth inning, and then the closer, Kenley Jansen, came in for a perfect ninth inning, just as it’s supposed to happen but rarely does anymore. Keuchel was also good, though not quite as good, and that was that.
“Justin’s going to be just as good tomorrow,” said Bregman of his still new teammate, Justin Verlander–comparing him with Kershaw, not Keuchel. In fact, the likely members of the Dodgers’ Game 2 lineup have even fewer combined plate appearances against Verlander (24) than the Astros had previously had against Kershaw, and none of the Dodgers have ever hit a home run off Verlander, either.
We might see a repeat of Game 1, but flipped. But probably not. We’ll probably never see a World Series game quite like Game 1 again.