Plot Twist: Clayton Kershaw Is Owning October

Clayton Kershaw continued his breakthrough postseason against the Rays in Game 1 of the World Series. He is 3-1 in four starts this postseason with a 2.88 ERA, only three walks and 30 strikeouts.
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ARLINGTON, Texas — The body-crushing workouts between starts, the scowls that followed even victories because perfection had not been achieved, the 89 mph fastball, the hangdog look of another October game that got away … all of it belongs to another version of Clayton Kershaw, not the one who took the mound in World Series Game 1 Tuesday night. Without compromising any of his famed competitive streak, there is a lightness about Kershaw these days. And he and the Dodgers are much better for it.

He is 32 years old, with more postseason starts, 29, than any pitcher who never won the World Series. But the Sisyphean complex is gone. More evolved than transformed, more zen than burdened, Kershaw continued his breakthrough postseason with six efficient, even placid innings against Tampa Bay. He threw only 78 pitches, 68% of which were strikes. Kershaw would have pitched more, but the rolling juggernaut that are the Dodgers kept piling up tack-on runs on their way to a thorough 8–3 win.

There it was after the game: a big, wide smile. And why not? Kershaw’s work to improve his velocity and to soften the edges of his personal game are paying off. You probably have not heard this before, but Kershaw is owning October. He is 3-1 in four starts this postseason with a 2.88 ERA with only three walks and 30 strikeouts. Only two other pitchers won three games in one postseason with no more than three walks and at least 30 strikeouts: Josh Beckett in 2007 and Cliff Lee in 2010.

Yes, Kershaw, the pitcher who had given up five runs or more in eight postseason games, the most in postseason history, is coming up big in October in ways like never before.

“Last year he started to grow,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “just as far as softening and going to dinner with teammates and changing his [workout] regimen. And then this year with the COVID, social injustice and speaking out, which is so outside what his comfort level is.

“He’s just more jovial than he normally is on days when he’s not pitching. And now it goes with the pitching.”

The pitching part is fascinating. Kershaw has adapted. After four years of declining velocity, Kershaw, about as old a pitching soul as they come, skedaddled to Driveline, the Washington cutting-edge, data-driven pitching lab, to figure a way to get some of it back. It worked. He added a tick and half to his fastball by correcting movement patterns in his trunk and lower body. It was less about his arm speed than it was in synching his delivery.

The net effect is much bigger than what the radar gun shows. The crispness of his slider and curveball have benefited from the more efficient way his body moves. The spin rate on his slider is up 202 rpms from where it was in 2017. His curveball spin rate is up 176 rpms.

With more pop on his fastball and more spin on his breaking pitches, Kershaw can attack hitters in more ways. He showed that in Game 1.

Kershaw opened the game like a man walking into an unlit, unfamiliar room and trying to get to the other side without stubbing a toe on furniture. Haltingly, he kept searching for the touch on his slider. He bounced four consecutive sliders at one point. He found himself with two on and one out. That’s when he turned to his curveball.

“I had to go to something else,” he said. “When you’re throwing 47-foot sliders in the dirt you better find something.”

It worked. Kershaw used his curve to strike out Hunter Renfroe and retire Manuel Margot on a bouncer back to the box.

“Barnesy did a great job,” said Kershaw, referring to his personal catcher, Austin Barnes. “He always does a great job. I think I shook him off twice all night. Maybe.”

Next to Barnes, the slider has become Kershaw’s most trusted friend in recent years. As a young pitcher, Kershaw would try to bully his way through jams by pounding the zone with fastballs, which is how the Cardinals famously hung seven runs on him in the 2013 NLCS. More recently, he relies on a predictable pattern: pound fastballs in to righthanders to get ahead, throw a slider in the same tunnel to finish them off.

Here’s the problem with that sequence: when it is done so often that hitters anticipate it, you better not miss location with a pitch they are hunting.

“In the postseason when there is so much more preparation,” Roberts said, “I think the ability and willingness to go outside what’s already known is going to be a benefit. Now the question is can he trust something that might not be the girl that brought him to the dance, the slider down and in to the righty.

“Can he trust going back door to it? Can he trust going to fastball or curveball?”

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By choosing other pitches and other locations for his put-away pitches, Kershaw buys himself more margin for error when he does go to the down-and-in slider.

The curveballs that extracted him from the first inning were good examples of finding another way (even if it derived from necessity). From there, however, Kershaw discovered the touch on his trusty slider, and it was devastating.

Entering this postseason, Kershaw had pitched in 32 postseason games—the equivalent of a full season—and only twice managed to get at least 19 swinging strikes. Now he has done it twice in four starts this postseason: against the Brewers in the Wild Card Series (a postseason career-high 22) and against the contact-challenged Rays in Game 1 (19).

The Dodgers posted so many tack-on runs that Roberts decided against sending him out for the seventh, which keeps Kershaw in a more favorable strength position for Game 5—if we get there.

Los Angeles is rolling. It has won four straight games while outscoring opponents, 22–10.

Watching the Dodgers hitters grind down pitchers is like going to the DMV. You know it’s going to be a while. They forced Rays starter Tyler Glasnow to throw a career-high 112 pitches—just to get 13 outs. The Rays threw 174 pitches—without the Dodgers needing to hit in the ninth. They are seeing an average of 172 pitches a game over the past seven games.

They also have a huge advantage over every other team: they have Mookie Betts. The Los Angeles right fielder made one of the greatest baserunning plays I have seen in the World Series.

Betts was on third (after stealing it) with one out in the fifth in what was only a 2–1 Los Angeles lead. Left-handed hitting Max Muncy was at bat. Tampa Bay drew its infield in. Just before the second pitch, third baseman Joey Wendle pinched toward Betts in order to shorten his lead, the better to give the infielders a shot at throwing him out on a groundball.

Here is how Betts described to me what happened before the next pitch. Betts shortened his primary lead as a decoy. Wendle, satisfied that Betts was sufficiently close to the bag, never moved over toward Betts. Once Glasnow came to the set position, Betts crept down the line another step or two, stealing the valuable real estate Wendle thought was safe.

“And then,” Betts said with a grin, “I broke pretty hard on my secondary [lead]. Well, a little more than pretty hard.”

By surreptitiously getting such a big lead as Wendle stood there away from the base, Betts defeated the entire idea of bringing the infield in. Muncy hit a groundball to first baseman Yandy Díaz. Betts beat the throw home by the distance equivalent to what he stole off third.

The Rays should have defended Betts, not Muncy, with Wendle. The last time Muncy grounded out to the third baseman (not shifted to shortstop or the right side) was June 16, 2019—a year and a half ago! Why defend something that hasn’t happened in a year and half instead of keeping Betts close to third?

The runs kept coming after the brilliant baserunning. Kershaw never let Tampa Bay back in a game in which the Dodgers destroyed the Rays with their star power. The Dodgers have three MVP winners, and all of them looked the role in Game 1. Cody Bellinger hit a home run and stole one in center field; Betts hit a home run, scored twice and swiped two bags; and Kershaw allowed one run over six innings.

Someone asked Kershaw if he could envision a team beating the Dodgers.

“If we play at our best? No,” he said. “I think we’re the best team. I think our clubhouse believes it. As a collective group, if everyone is playing as they can, I don’t see how that can happen.”

It would be tempting to say Kershaw turned back the clock. After all, he was pitching close to his home and where he grew up in the Dallas Metroplex. He was pitching against Tyler Glasnow, who graduated from Hart High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., 30 miles from Dodger Stadium, in 2011, the year Kershaw won the first of his three Cy Young Awards. Glasnow was a big fan of Kershaw and the Dodgers.

By demeanor and stuff, however, there is nothing nostalgic about Kershaw. He is pushing his game and himself forward, not back, and wearing a happiness that is as obvious as the extra spin on his slider.

“It’s just an appreciation, man,” he said. “It’s just so special. It’s pretty awesome.”