The Dodgers Didn't Need Clayton Kershaw to Dominate. He Did Anyway

There was no playoff implosion to see Thursday night as L.A.'s ace cemented his team's spot in the NLDS.
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LOS ANGELES – Saying that a slider has good depth means that it breaks late, that it travels straight for a while – “staying in the same lane as a fastball,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts explains – before bending through the strike zone. Sliders without depth swerve too early, making them easier to track and hit.

Thursday night, Clayton Kershaw’s slider was as deep as the Pacific. He and Roberts credited the return of that pitch’s snappiness as the main factor in Kershaw’s dominant performance in the Dodgers’ wild-card series-clinching 3-0 victory over Milwaukee.

It was a young arm’s slider. In fact, you’d be forgiven if you glanced at your calendar in the middle innings just to make sure it didn’t read October 2009, when the 21-year-old Kershaw spun a 10-strikeout gem against the Rockies, or October 2013, when the 25-year-old capped his second Cy Young season with an opening round, 12-strikeout performance against the Braves. But the cardboard fans and fake crowd noise and masks worn by some players provided harsh reminders that this is October 2020, and that Kershaw, who wears the yoke of the Dodgers’ 32-year championship drought more than anyone else, is 32 himself.

The future Hall of Famer was among the few Dodgers who was allowed to live with his family during this Wild Card Series, thanks to a quirk in the players union’s agreement with MLB that allows players who own homes in the area to reside outside baseball’s postseason quasi-bubble. A less stringent version of the NBA’s COVID-19 regimen in Orlando, baseball’s rules require those who rent their homes to hunker down at the team hotel. Kershaw, a longtime L.A. homeowner in his 13th season with the club, was allowed to sleep in his own bed and do everything else that married fathers of three kids under six do. He insists he is an expert maker of snacks.

He has always been a maker of history. High on the list of iconic L.A. sports images, just behind Magic Johnson, captured mid-dribble in his tight yellow Lakers uni, is our mental picture of Kershaw in his home whites winding up before a background of multicultural Dodger fans. These days, of course, that backdrop is gone, and Kershaw must do his work in a thoroughly sterilized and empty stadium, generating support from somewhere within himself and among his teammates.

The Dodgers did not need him to be dominant Thursday night. They just needed him to get them through the middle innings, preferably with a lead, so they could dismiss the inferior and injury-riddled Brewers, avoid a Game 3, and advance to the Division Series. Kershaw went ahead and was dominant anyway, leaving little doubt from the fifth inning onward as to exactly how this game would go.

That he recorded a postseason career-high 13 strikeouts meant less to him, he said afterward, than the efficiency with which he worked. Kershaw didn’t face more than four batters in any of his eight innings of work. Twenty-three of the 27 batters he faced either fell behind 0-1 or hit his first offering into an out. Eleven of those 27 saw a first-pitch slider. That pitch, and its rediscovered depth, usually returned later in the at bat to finish hitters off.

During his last start, Sept. 25 against the Angels, his favorite "out pitch" wasn’t sharp at all, Kershaw said. “I just didn’t feel like I had the arm speed to create the [late] movement.” Years ago he would have responded by trudging through the same post-start routine he completed after every outing, whether he’d thrown five innings or eight, whether his stuff had felt snappy or lazy. “I’ve been known to be pretty stubborn,” he explained. But following his lackluster four-inning outing against the Angels, Kershaw freelanced with his regime, preparing his start against the Brewers by focusing on recovery. “I think that helped [me] get that arm speed back that you need get that torque on the slider.”

Through three innings on Thursday night, the three-time Cy Young winner had thrown 35 pitches, 26 for strikes. In innings four through eight he reached a disquieting level of supremacy over the professional batsmen pitted against him, striking out ten, allowing one hit, one walk–and picking off the player he walked, as if Luis Urías’ presence on first base offended him. Over his eight total innings of work, he allowed two runners to reach second base and none to touch third.

Clayton Kershaw pitching

His counterpart, Brandon Woodruff, was on a parallel path for most of the game. Coming off an eight-inning, two-hit gem against the Cardinals, the red-bearded Brewers starter struck out eight Dodgers through four innings–although without Kershaw’s Swiss-watch efficiency.

L.A.'s ace returned to the mound in the sixth with a 3-0 lead, striking out leadoff man Avisaíl García on three pitches and Christian Yelich on four. He needed five to get Jedd Gyorko looking. Through seven innings he had thrown 80 pitches, 60 of them strikes. His eleven punchouts had already tied a season-high, and he didn’t yet appear tired. Tyrone Taylor whiffed on three pitches to start the eighth. David Freitas ended the frame by flailing at an especially deep slider, Kershaw’s 93rd and final pitch of the evening. He shook off his catcher, Barnes, only two or three times all night, he said.

“It was fun,” Kershaw added. “Sometimes getting swings and misses is important, but sometimes it’s just being efficient … being able to go deeper into games. Throwing eight innings was awesome.” It was his deepest outing of the season. He hadn’t pitched eight complete innings, in fact, since an NLDS win over the Braves in Oct. 2018–also a 3-0 shutout.

Now the Dallas native will travel with his team to Arlington, Tex., to face the Cardinals or Padres in this year’s divisional round. It’s early yet. Kershaw will need to lead the Dodgers to at least three of the eleven additional wins required to claim their first title since '88. Thursday night’s gem could be the equivalent of an early-breaking slider–Kershaw has fallen off such playoff cliffs before–but the initial signs, at least, suggest that this delivery could run deep indeed.