The Dodgers advanced Thursday night with a 3-0 victory over the Brewers at Dodger Stadium, achieved largely through the brilliance of ace Clayton Kershaw, who tossed eight scoreless innings and struck out 13, a career high in the postseason. The Dodgers will meet the winner of the St. Louis Cardinals-San Diego Padres series starting Tuesday at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Tex.
All 16 entrants in these unusual, expanded playoffs craved a World Series title, but nobody needs one quite like the Dodgers, who notched their eighth straight National League West title this year and thus are taking an eighth straight crack at a championship that has eluded them, often in excruciating fashion. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say nothing short of a title would validate the otherwise remarkable run they have put together.
By all measures, the Dodgers, whose 43-17 record was the best in baseball and extrapolates to 116 wins in a 162-game season, should have obliterated the Brewers, who limped into the postseason with a 29-31 record and were further decimated by ill-timed injuries to some of their most important figures: top starter Corbin Burnes, ace reliever Devin Williams and regular No. 3 hitter Ryan Braun.
The situation was desperate enough for the Brewers that they had to turn Game 1 into a bullpen game, which backfired when Brent Suter gave up three early runs. Still, the Dodgers had trouble putting away the Brewers, who batted .172 in the series while collecting just three extra-base hits.
Mookie Betts, the superstar right fielder whose acquisition from Boston in February was designed to push the already-loaded Dodgers roster over the top, had three of the Dodgers’ six extra-base hits in the series and drove in three of their seven runs. With his right-handed power, all-around brilliance and loose swagger, he brings elements the Dodgers, for all their talent and pedigree, may have lacked in Octobers past.
“There’s a confidence there,” Kershaw marveled when asked about Betts. “There’s a really calming influence there. It’s just expected that we’re going to win, and you feed off that, not necessarily by what he says but by the way he carries himself. Thankfully, he’s on our team.”
It was Kershaw’s performance that was the most auspicious development for the Dodgers in the first round. There is always extra scrutiny on the great left-hander this time of year, owing to his checkered history in the postseason and the velocity declines that plagued him in previous Octobers. The lingering image of Kershaw from a year ago was the bewilderment and dejection on his face after he blew a lead in relief in spectacular fashion to the Washington Nationals in the decisive Game 5 of the division series.
But none of that was in evidence Thursday. This season, both Kershaw’s fastball (91.6) and slider (87.9) gained roughly 1 mph of average velocity over 2019 (but remained a couple of ticks below his peak years), and both were slightly higher still (91.8 and 88.1) in Game 2. He got 24 swings-and-misses against the Brewers, 20 of them coming on his slider, which had its trademark depth and bite. Ten of his 13 strikeouts came on sliders, the other three on curveballs.
“The slider is obviously an important pitch for me,” Kershaw said. “I don’t look at all the characteristics of the different pitches — you can just tell. I was getting swings-and-misses, and the bad ones were getting fouled. It’s a small margin of error, but I can see it with my eyes.”
The Dodgers, quite obviously, are going to need sustained greatness from Kershaw this month, in part because other, major questions remain regarding their pitching staff, both at the front of their rotation and at the back end of their bullpen.
Right-hander Walker Buehler, the Game 1 starter, lasted just four innings, his performance affected by a blister on the index finger of his throwing hand that has been plaguing him for weeks. The Dodgers’ sweep of the Brewers affords them the option to flip-flop Buehler and Kershaw in their rotation for the division series, if they want, with Kershaw starting Game 1 on regular rest and Buehler and his blister getting extra rest ahead of Game 2.
But there is additional intrigue in the Dodgers’ bullpen after Manager Dave Roberts bypassed closer Kenley Jansen for the save in Game 2, opting for flame-throwing rookie Brusdar Graterol instead. This came after Jansen, whose velocity and command have sagged throughout 2020, had issues with both in his Game 1 save.
“He was available. He’s our closer,” Roberts said of Jansen, seeking to head off a budding controversy. “I just felt Brusdar — [the Brewers] hadn’t seen him. Kenley’s going to close out many games for us as we go forward.”
The Dodgers have a long way to go to a World Series title. Their win over the Brewers — the second of the 13 required to win it all this fall — essentially gets them to the traditional starting line of the postseason. Kershaw and Buehler could make five more starts each in these playoffs. Roberts could face another eight or 10 Jansen or Graterol decisions. And the Dodgers could start seeing better opponents than the Brewers.
The Dodgers did what they should have done in the first round. But it would be unwise to read more into it than that.