The Braves never put another runner in scoring position against the Dodgers’ ace, who threw eight scoreless innings on 85 pitches and did not issue a single walk. The Braves collected just one more hit off Kershaw, for a total of two, as he pounded the strike zone with his left arm. They generated no more threats, have now not scored through two games of this series, and looked Friday like a young, inexperienced team that can’t compete with these Dodgers quite yet.
That was because of Kershaw, a day after he watched Game 1 from the dugout, and two days before the Dodgers have a chance to sweep the Braves at SunTrust Park in Atlanta.
“All I was trying to do is try and put our team in a good spot, and you want to defend home field when you have home field obviously,” Kershaw said. “So Game 1, Game 2, game whatever, I’m getting to pitch in the playoffs and I’m excited about that.”
Kershaw made the start on extra day of rest because Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts decided to throw Hyun-jin Ryu in Game 1 on Thursday. And in a lot of ways, the rest was normal for Kershaw.
Since major league baseball added more off days to the calendar in 2018, and maybe with some plotting by Roberts, Kershaw made 12 starts on an extra day of rest this season. That was slightly more than the nine appearances he made on regular rest, and forced him to have two different routines depending on the schedule. He was actually better with the extra day (7-1 with a 2.56 ERA) compared to his numbers on regular rest (1-3, 3.21 ERA). Game 2 could have been considered his new comfort zone.
And yet the start was abnormal for other reasons, reasons that matter when you can throw a baseball like few others in the world, reasons that are more concerned with message and symbolism than logic and results. Kershaw has been a star pitcher for nearly a decade and, in turn, the Dodgers’ surefire Game 1 starter whenever they’ve begun a playoff series. That was never much of a question. The Dodgers clinched, October came and if Kershaw’s arm was ready, he stalked out to the mound, placed his blue cleats on the rubber and went to work.
But not on Thursday. Not when Roberts went with Ryu and watched him toss seven scoreless innings in a 6-0 win. Not before Kershaw instead led the Dodgers into Game 2 and gave up that double to Acuna on his first pitch. Kershaw then navigated away from trouble with two groundouts and a strikeout that left him screaming in celebration as he stared at his clenched left fist.
“It is impressive. It’s not a surprise. This guy is a potential Hall of Fame player,” Roberts said of Kershaw dialing in after not pitching in Game 1. “When it comes to his day to start and to help his ballclub win a game, I had no concern that anything was going to affect him.”
He was rewarded by the Dodgers’ lineup right away, at the expense of Braves starter Anibal Sanchez, when Manny Machado lined a first-inning home run over the left-field wall. Machado came to the Dodgers in mid-July as baseball’s most valuable trade deadline acquisition. He did not play as such in Game 1, striking out twice without a swing, grounding into a double play and making an error at shortstop.
Machado did meet expectations Friday, if only because he started the Dodgers by smashing that early home run in a 3-0 count. Yasmani Grandal added another in the fifth inning for the Dodgers’ third run. That was more than Kershaw needed.
“He pitched, he pitched,” Roberts said of Kershaw. “I think that it was, for me, one of the best outings that I can recall in the sense that he used his complete repertoire of pitches. He used both sides of the plate, he changed eye levels effectively, and he really pitched.”
When asked if there was added satisfaction to the performance given that he was pitching in Game 2 instead of Game 1, Kershaw relented for just a moment.
“Yeah, maybe,” he said through a big smile. “Maybe a tick, for sure.”
He set down 14 consecutive hitters after Acuna’s leadoff double, mixing a low-90s fastball, a darting cutter and a looping curve that buckled knees and left the crowd hanging on what he may throw next. He was nailed by an Ozzie Albies comebacker in the fifth, scrambled to get it and threw out the speedy runner while falling onto his back. He got out of the sixth with an inning-ending double play and pounded his glove once before striding off the field.
And after Kershaw finished off the eighth with a strikeout of Charlie Culberson, leaving Culberson throwing his batting gloves into the dirt around home plate, he sped into the dugout and wrapped his throwing arm with two towels. He had not pitched into the eighth inning in 19 previous postseason starts, let alone the ninth, and Roberts went to speak with him as closer Kenley Jansen warmed in the bullpen.
Kershaw jogged out to the mound to warm up for the final inning, bringing a sell-out crowd to its feet as he fished the ball off the mound with his glove. But Roberts came to get him moments later, just so the Dodgers could see the Braves’ pinch-hitter to match up accordingly, and the fans cheered Kershaw off the field before booing the manager for the decision.
They wanted more Kershaw. Just three more outs. Yet he had already done his part and then some, in Game 2 for a change, in a way that looked no different even if the circumstances slightly were.