Destiny brings Kershaw to Koufax's mound

Ace masterful in first World Series start, with Dodgers legend in attendance

October 25th, 2017

LOS ANGELES -- This was always 's fate. He stood on the pitcher's mound at the heart of the Dodger Stadium madness, and he kicked a bit at the dirt, and he looked to get Houston's for the final out of the seventh inning. Yes, this was where he was meant to be.

When Kershaw was just a boy in a Dallas suburb, his father, Chris, would sometimes read him books about a left-handed pitcher on the Los Angeles Dodgers named Sandy Koufax. Kershaw liked those books a lot, and he sheepishly admits he wrote more than one book report about Koufax during his childhood.

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When he was 18, Kershaw was an absurdly dominant high school pitcher ("You can bring lawn chairs out to the field," his teammates used to say), and the Dodgers -- coming off their most dreadful season since moving to Los Angeles -- took him with the seventh pick in the 2006 Draft. He was their great hope. Within months, it was clear what the Dodgers were dreaming about.

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"I don't want to label him," Lance Parrish, former big league catcher and Kershaw's manager at Class A Great Lakes, said less than a year later. "But he looks like a young Sandy Koufax."

A year after that, Kershaw was getting advice from Koufax himself.

"Attack hitters," Koufax told him.

So Kershaw attacked hitters. What would you do? He went after them with his blazing fastball and nose-diving slider and Bugs Bunny curveball, and hitters never could quite catch up. Kershaw became the great pitcher of his time, his generation's Koufax, winning National League Cy Young Awards and an NL MVP Award and NL ERA titles. He struck out 300 in a season, and he threw a no-hitter, and he held hitters to a sub-.200 average four years in a row.

Yes, Kershaw's destiny always pointed to here, to Koufax's mound (albeit somewhat lower), for Game 1 of the World Series presented by YouTube TV, a 3-1 Dodgers win. But the journey turned out quite a bit different than Kershaw expected. For one thing, it took the Dodgers longer to get here than anyone anticipated. Five times, he and the Dodgers made it to the postseason. Each time, there was this expectation, this certainty even, that Kershaw would dominate October the way Koufax did ... and dominate happily.

But no, it wasn't fun for Kershaw. He certainly had some bright moments in October. Kershaw had some miserable moments, too. His nemesis was the seventh inning. In Game 1 of the 2014 NL Division Series against St. Louis, Kershaw was sailing along, and then the seventh inning came and the Cardinals scored eight runs.

Next time out against St. Louis in Game 4 of that NLDS, Kershaw started the seventh inning up by three runs on a single, another single and a homer.

Against the Mets in Game 1 of the 2015 NLDS, Kershaw started the seventh inning up, 1-0, and walked three batters before being pulled. Facing the Nationals in Game 4 of the 2016 NLDS, he led by three runs as the seventh began; he promptly loaded the bases and was finished. Even earlier this year, in Game 1 of the NLDS against Arizona, Kershaw began the seventh with a commanding lead. He gave up back-to-back home runs and was done for the night.

None of those, though, was a World Series game. No, this was the first World Series game, and this was the destiny. Koufax was one of the 54,253 in the stands watching and cheering and, perhaps, silently praying, too.

For the first six innings, there was no need for prayer. Kershaw was electrifying. He struck out 11 batters in those six innings, becoming the first Dodgers to record double-digit K's in a World Series game since, well, Koufax.

"He was ... incredible," Dodgers third baseman said, taking a few seconds to come up with a word big enough to capture Kershaw's brilliance.

"Tonight was one of those nights, I think the first time in a while, where we've seen all three of his pitches synced up," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "I see the swing and miss. The depth of the slider. The fastball command. The backdoor cutter. The curveball. ... This was a special night for Clayton."

Then came the seventh inning, that frightening seventh inning, and Kershaw found himself facing the heart of that fantastic Astros lineup for the third time. led off with a single. It seemed so familiar.

Here it was, the big moment, the destiny of Clayton Kershaw. He stared down , one of the best hitters in baseball. Early in the game, Kershaw had thrown a bad pitch to Correa -- a middle-middle fastball that Kershaw admitted "could have gone a long way" -- but he got away with it. Correa popped it up.

This time, first pitch, Kershaw coaxed Correa to ground out to third, but not hard enough to turn a double play.

Yuli Gurriel also swung at the first pitch, and he hit an easy-to-assemble double-play ball to short. But the Dodgers' couldn't quite get a handle of the ball and was forced to just get the lead runner. It never feels good when you give the opponent an extra out.

That brought McCann to the plate. Kershaw had only thrown 79 pitches, but it was clear that he had invested everything he had in them, and he was pretty close to spent. This would be his last inning. Kershaw fell behind McCann, 2-1, then threw a four-seam fastball, up and on the outside corner, and McCann swung. The crack of the bat sounded loud, but the ball was hit high, too high. Kershaw knew. As soon as McCann connected, he began to walk toward the dugout. Center fielder Chris Taylor pulled it in. The Dodgers won Game 1. Kershaw was credited with the win.

In all, it was seven innings pitched, one run allowed (a mistake pitch that hit into the left-field bleachers), 11 strikeouts, 24 called strikes, all against probably the best-hitting team in baseball, but it was more than that. For so long, it seemed like everyone had waited for this, for Kershaw to own the Dodger Stadium mound in October, just like ...

"You've talked about your relationship with Sandy Koufax ..." someone asked Kershaw, and he broke out into a wide grin.

"I just saw him!" Kershaw said. "He's here!"

Yes. He was.