The last time we heard from Clayton Kershaw in the postseason, his eyes were red, his voice cracked and he was beating himself up for letting his team down when the Nationals eliminated the Dodgers in the first round.
A year later, Kershaw is reinvented; yes, even in October. Instead of beating himself up, he beat the Brewers with a vintage masterpiece Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, and a 3-0 win clinched the Dodgers a sweep in the National League Wild Card Series.
“This was a fun night for me, getting the postseason off to a good start,” he said. “We get to move on.”
The top-seeded Dodgers advanced to the NL Division Series and the neutral-site bubble in Arlington, only a few miles from Kershaw’s Dallas home, with Game 1 on Tuesday against the Padres or Cardinals.
“If you would have told me the first time I’d ever pitch in Texas would be in the Division Series against somebody that’s not the Rangers, it’s like it’s the craziest thing ever,” said Kershaw. “It’s going to be weird. I live 10 minutes from the team hotel. I’m going to be staring at family through a glass wall.”
Kershaw, whose postseason narrative has magnified his October failures over his successes, struck out 13 in eight innings, matching his postseason high for both. The only Dodgers with more postseason strikeouts are Sandy Koufax (15 in 1963) and Carl Erskine (14 in 1953).
He allowed three singles, one walk and picked Luis Urías off at first base in the eighth inning. He extended his franchise record for playoff wins to 10 and recorded his sixth postseason game with double-digit strikeouts, second-most all-time behind Justin Verlander’s seven (and first since recording 11 in Game 1 of the 2017 World Series).
Kershaw flashed the increased velocity he showed during the regular season, not only with the fastball but this time also the slider, which picked up nearly one mile an hour from this year’s average. All of the strikeouts came on breaking balls -- 10 on sliders, three on curves.
“My last start before the season ended, I didn’t feel I had the arm speed to create the movement I needed to on that pitch,” said Kershaw. “Did a lot of recovery-type things after that start and that probably helped a little to get that arm speed back to get the torque on the slider. It just didn’t feel like it was coming out the way you want it to.
“The slider is obviously an important pitch for me. I don’t look into all the characteristics of the different pitches, you can just tell. Last game against the Angels, I was getting a lot of foul balls and even the good ones were getting tipped and the bad ones were hit really hard. Tonight, 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 eye, for sure.”
Kershaw threw 93 pitches and was more pleased with the innings he ate than the batters he fanned. He said finding adjustments between starts is equally gratifying.
“I’ve been known to be pretty stubborn, do the same things no matter what in between starts,” he said. “I think that might not be the best idea sometimes. So, trying to figure out some things based on how you feel and actually have to think a little bit, which is no fun. I think it may benefit me in the long run.”
Kershaw also credited his personal catcher, Austin Barnes, who also broke the scoreless tie with an RBI single that triggered the three-run fifth inning that won the game.
“He does a great job and prepares really well,” said Kershaw. “And tonight, he’s got a track record of getting big hits in the postseason and that knock opened the gates a little. Can’t say enough about him, he did great.”