LOS ANGELES – When Game 1 of the World Series was over, and some of the heat had escaped the canyon, wafting out to sea or to the desert or anywhere but here, Clayton Kershaw was the man in the blue sweatshirt. His cap had loosened on his head. His hair plastered his cheeks. He climbed the stairs along with the others and stood fourth in a long line of Los Angeles Dodgers, his right hand held high. The nine who’d finished Game 1 – Kenley Jansen among them – approached, their right hands at the same level as Kershaw’s.
He’d pitched seven innings. The Houston Astros, who’d scored more runs than anyone in the regular season, who’d hardly ever struck out, scored once against Kershaw. They struck out 11 times, the most by any pitcher this season.
“That,” the veteran Brandon McCarthy observed, “is his masterpiece.”
Given the time and place, given the season, given a full house that included Sandy Koufax, given the reservations carried by plenty but not by him or any who’d ever toiled alongside him, the best game Clayton Kershaw ever pitched may not be the 15-strikeout no-hitter. It may not be that night he struck out 15 Giants. Or any of the 15 shutouts. Any of the short-rest postseason wins, either.
On a Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, in the first World Series game played in this town in going on three decades, Kershaw took the baseball and with it drew a big C, then got on with the rest, his signature win among 150 others.
His first four pitches of the game, to George Springer, went fastball, curveball, fastball, slider. Springer went foul ball, called strike, foul ball, swinging strike. The fastball was alive and precise. The curveball curled to the catcher’s mitt. The slider chased Springer’s back foot, hard and relentless.
By then, after just four pitches, a corner of right field still ablaze in the setting sun, Kershaw had announced that a swing or two would win. It would be by the Dodgers, two swings to one, against Dallas Keuchel and the Houston Astros, by a 3-1 score. Kershaw, a regular-season and postseason workhorse for the Dodgers, required but 83 pitches for seven innings, five days after he finished the Chicago Cubs with 89 pitches over six innings, and the difference is a healthy, evenly-ridden Kershaw and a reliable band of relief pitchers.
He faced 24 Astros. He threw 17 first-pitch strikes. And in case the Astros had given thought to hunting first-pitch fastballs (a common strategy against him), and while Kershaw gave them 13 of those, he also threw 10 first-pitch sliders, seven for strikes. He threw a first-pitch curveball for a strike. Then he finished them with whatever he felt like – four sliders, four fastballs, three curveballs. Seven of his 11 strikeouts came called by plate umpire Phil Cuzzi, only a couple – Jose Altuve walked away in the fourth inning holding his hand out and with it alternating between his forehead and knees, asking how both could be good – with complaints. Otherwise, they dragged their bats to the dugout and, in a 1-1 game until the sixth, hoped he misfired or they got lucky.
In an additional wrinkle, Kershaw came upon a two-strike count to Josh Reddick in the fifth inning, nodded at Austin Barnes’ request for a fastball, and delivered the pitch nearly sidearm for strike three. No reason, said Kershaw, who’ll drop down a time or two a game, sometimes with the fastball and occasionally with a curveball, just because.
“There’s no process,” he said. “There’s really not. Barnesy doesn’t know it’s coming. He just calls a fastball. And somewhere in that area of my brain it seems like a good idea. So I do it. But there’s no rhyme or reason. There’s no pattern. I mean, obviously, usually they’re against left-handed batters, but other than that, I don’t know. If I feel like I can sneak one by somebody I’ll give it a shot.”
Inning after inning, sweat soaking his jersey, Kershaw would come find his place on the bench, six times in seven without allowing a run. Four times in seven not allowing so much as a baserunner. On an unusually warm October night where it was 103 degrees at first pitch, a ball in the air would be dangerous. Alex Bregman got him on a misguided fastball, which ended up in the bleachers. Otherwise, only a few balls had any altitude to them. Nearly half, anyway, ended in Barnes’ mitt. And each time Andre Ethier, the veteran outfielder who’d seen every one of Kershaw’s postseason starts, a majority of them from over Kershaw’s left shoulder, would peer down the bench at Kershaw and be reminded of the journey they’d taken.
“This,” Ethier said, “is who he is when he’s not trying to dig for something, to search for something.”
He is not, it seems, covering for an unhealthy back. He is not overused. He threw but 175 innings in the regular season, that due to the back, and not the 230-some of prior seasons. He is, however, covered by Brandon Morrow and Jansen, among others, which means his postseason experiences are not slogs of 124 pitches or 113 or a hundred-and-anything.
“It takes time,” Ethier said. “Longer for certain people to make it. A lot of failure has happened to be in this position, and now to have the know-how and confidence to do it. We’ve had the chance to fail a lot in the playoffs.”
Even, at the end, the seventh inning came and went for Kershaw, as nothing but another inning, a few more pitches before the bullpen door opened and Kershaw accepted his handshakes. Justin Turner homered. Jansen saved it. Kershaw stood and went to congratulate all the other guys, then turned and walked off, his chin maybe a bit higher than usual.
More World Series coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Jeff Passan: How Sandy Koufax and a pair of cleats helped Dodgers
• Tim Brown: World Series Game 1 belongs to Kershaw
• 5 biggest moments from World Series Game 1
• Astros need Verlander to be great again