LOS ANGELES — In the greatest night of his Hall of Fame pitching life, when he carved up the most prolific offense in baseball with ease and precision unlike anything ever seen in the World Series, Clayton Kershaw, erstwhile Clydesdale of a workhorse, was done after just 84 pitches. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts walked up to Kershaw in the dugout after the seventh inning, when Kershaw still had not thrown a pitch with a runner in scoring position all night, told him he was done and punctuated his inarguable decision with a punch to the chest.
Kershaw had no say in the matter, though not one minute later, after Roberts returned to his perch at the dugout rail, he circled back to tell his manager that he still felt strong. It was a moot point.
Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday night, a 3–1 win for Los Angeles, will go down as one of the most clinical games ever thrown in the Fall Classic. With Sandy Koufax looking on from the second row, our generation’s Koufax, upon waiting 10 years to take the ball in the World Series, responded with a signature game. It wasn’t Koufaxian in length, but it was every bit the facsimile when it came to the precise craft of pitching.
“That,” pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said, “was really special. It might have been his best, because he showed how good he is without just overpowering people. Changing speeds, mixing it up, putting the ball where he wanted … What you saw tonight, that was as perfect a clinic of pitching as you will see.”
For too long watching Kershaw pitch in October was like watching Hercules go about completion of the twelve labours. Sometimes pitching on short rest, often asked to keep pitching deep into games, Kershaw pitched with strain and agitation written all over his face. Pitching against the Cardinals, in particular, was the equivalent of cleaning out the Augean stables in a day. He pitched with the weight of the team, if not the world, on his shoulders, and usually his shoulders sagged. His youthfulness became lost in furrowed brows and dropped chins.
The Dodgers went 3–9 the first 12 times they gave him in the ball in the postseason. But since then they are 9–1 in Kershaw games, which include an elimination game win over the Mets in 2015, the save in the 2016 NLDS clincher on one day of rest, a 1–0 win at Wrigley Field in the 2016 NLCS, the 2017 NLCS clincher over the Cubs, and that hermetically sealed, never-in-doubt win Tuesday night in Game 1. So good was Kershaw that he:
— Became the first pitcher in 1,302 World Series starts to win a game with no walks and 11 strikeouts. His friend Don Newcombe is the only other pitcher to whiff 11 in a walkless World Series game, but he lost Game 1 of the 1949 World Series on a walkoff homer.
— Threw 71% strikes (60 of 84).
— Threw ball three just twice all night.
— Worked 11 batters to a two-strike count and whiffed every one of them.
— Struck out more Houston batters than anybody in 172 games this year.
“The most impressive thing,” said teammate Brandon McCarthy, “is the way he attacked the zone. You watch pitching in the postseason and it’s a lot about the ability to get guys to chase. There is a lot of throwing balls with the intention of getting guys to expand their zone. He abused people in the zone.
“He’s a guy who stays in attack mode. When you can go out and just abuse a team that’s as good a hitting team as there is in the strike zone? That is incredibly difficult, and impressive.”
Kershaw is a creature of habit. Like every other game in his career, he threw exactly 34 pitches warming up in the bullpen. Honeycutt noticed something unusual, though: his curveball was lousy in the pen.
“Then, second pitch of the game, he drops in a perfect curveball,” Honeycutt said. “I thought, Okay. That made a statement early. When you have to cover three pitches in a 20-mile-per-hour window as a hitter, it’s going to be tough.”
Kershaw sliced the bottom and sides of the strike zone with his laser-like fastball. Kershaw is one of the rare pitchers who throw straight over the top. Growing up, his natural motion was to throw three-quarters like most everyone else, but as a junior in high school he took his first pitching lesson, and the coach, Skip Johnson, now the coach at Oklahoma, elevated his release point. With a release point six and a half feet off the ground, Kershaw throws a fast-spinning four-seamer that holds his plane through the bottom of the zone.
“He rarely pitches up,” Honeycutt said. “And that fastball down, with the backspin it has, hitters just don’t see.”
His slider acts like a fastball in disguise. It comes in only about three or four ticks below his fastball, but has a late cut to it, on both sides of the plate.
The curveball is the Coney Island Cyclone of pitches: a beautiful parabola best seen from afar if you have a weak stomach. He’s been throwing it ever since he was 11 years old playing youth baseball in Dallas when his catcher was Matthew Stafford, the future Detroit Lions quarterback. Kershaw would alert Stafford that a curve was coming by shaking his glove. So terrifying is the pitch that Kershaw has thrown it 4,197 times in his career and allowed only 12 home runs, as well as only a .127 batting average.
Such weapons always have made Kershaw a nightmare for hitters to solve. The difference now is that Kershaw doesn’t have to go deep into games. The Augean stables don’t have to be cleaned in a day.
“There is a … humanness now,” Roberts said before the game, about the famously competitive Kershaw and how he has come to accept turning games over to the bullpen. “He’s been hurt twice in the past two years, remember. The bullpen’s been so good, it’s validation of what we’re trying to do, and he buys into that.”
The Dodgers play one of the most advanced forms of analytical baseball. Based on truth in numbers, they believe deeply in turning games over to a bucket brigade of hard-throwing relievers rather than asking a starting pitcher to work his way through a lineup a third time. No team this year asked its starters to face fewer batters the third time around (746) than did the Dodgers. Should they win the World Series, Los Angeles will blow away the record for the fewest batters faced a third time by a world champion in a full season (956 by the 1959 Dodgers). Length doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter that the Dodgers have the Koufax of our generation. It doesn’t matter that they traded for a former American League strikeout champion, Yu Darvish, either. He, too, has been Dodger-ized since the July 31 trade from Texas. Los Angeles gave him extra rest, had him throw fewer fastballs and cut his average pitches per start by 10%.
Those who bleat about starters not pitching deep into games are ignorant of how much baseball has changed in the past few years. The abundance of relievers and the effort starters must put into every pitch—they are not asked to “pace” themselves, or keep in their pocket ways of getting a hitter out for later—have changed the very nature of starting pitching. Wishing for starters to be Koufax again is wishing for typewriters to come back, replacing laptops.
Recently Dallas Keuchel, the Game 1 loser despite a tidy effort himself, was talking to a high profile agent while shopping for a new representative. The agent advised him, “Two hundred innings [by a pitcher] are dead. Throwing about 185 innings is advisable. If you’ve got anything slightly wrong with how you feel, the prudent thing is just to shut it down for a start or two.”
The Red Sox kept running their starters out on regular rest (fifth day) this year and all it got them was a tired staff and a first-round ouster. The Dodgers are trying to win the World Series, not some macho, turn-back-the-clock sentiment.
When he was 25, Koufax once threw 205 pitches in a 13-inning complete game—on two days of rest after throwing two innings out of the bullpen. To do so in today’s game, with so many very good relievers, and all we know about data and arm health, would be downright negligent.
Kershaw hasn’t thrown more than 100 pitches in 10 starts since he came off the disabled list. Just five years ago, he passed 100 pitches 26 times. In his past 10 starts he has averaged 86 pitches, exactly what he threw Tuesday night.
An 86-pitch pitcher now, Kershaw is rolling in the postseason without the physical or mental strain. He is 3-0 this postseason with a 2.96 ERA. The Dodgers are 4–0 when he takes the ball this October. They are three wins from their first world championship since 1988.
“The World Series, Dodger Stadium … it was pretty cool,” Kershaw said about the biggest stage after his work was done. There was a lightness about him that has been missing despite all of his success. Brandon Morrow and Kenley Jensen mowed down six straight hitters after Roberts told Kershaw his work was done.
It’s beginning to make sense now, to Kershaw himself, and to those who have been watching Roberts all year get starters out of the game even before the first sign of trouble. This is the modern game. And Kershaw no longer has to be Hercules.