Just having three past MVPs on a roster is enough to make the Dodgers a juggernaut, but all three played like MVPs in the same game Tuesday night, an 8-3 win in Game 1 of the World Series that served notice to the Rays that they’ve run into a buzzsaw.
From Clayton Kershaw in vintage form, to a Cody Bellinger blast despite a dislocated shoulder, to another Mookie Betts display of consistent brilliance, the Dodgers put on a show that can only make one wonder how they were taken to the limit by the Braves only days ago. They even constructed a four-run fifth inning without an extra-base hit, showing they can pass the baton with the best of them.
In case the Rays are wondering if the Dodgers can be beaten, Kershaw offers this:
“If we play at our best, no. I mean, I don't think -- I think we are the best team, and I think our clubhouse believes that. There's going to be certain times where we get beat, that happens. But as a collective group, if everybody's doing what they're supposed to be doing and playing the way they're supposed to, I don't see how that can happen.”
That’s probably what the 1971 Orioles (with MVPs Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson and Boog Powell) and the '83 Phillies (with MVPs Joe Morgan, Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt) thought before losing the World Series. In the divisional era (since 1969), the only other team with three former MVPs in the World Series was the '76 Big Red Machine (with Johnny Bench, Morgan and Rose).
The Dodgers haven’t won a World Series since 1988, and they still have much work to do, but the odds at least are on their side. The winner of the first game of the World Series has gone on to win the Fall Classic 72 of 115 times (62.6%). That has been the case in 14 of the last 17 World Series.
But Kershaw and the Dodgers won Game 1 of the 2017 World Series against Houston, and we know how that turned out. However, one game into this Fall Classic, the Dodgers played long ball and small ball with flawless defense and dominant starting pitching, and they didn’t have to use the back of the bullpen.
Bellinger and Betts, for example, became the fifth pair of former MVPs to homer as teammates in a World Series game since 1964, and the first since Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent in 2002.
“You look at just the sheer talent, they're a couple of the best players in all of baseball,” said manager Dave Roberts. “Mookie's really impacted us, we've talked so much about some of the ways on both sides of the baseball as well as on the bases. And Cody just made another great play tonight defensively. The homer a couple nights ago and just taking really good at-bats.
"So yeah, Mookie is going to get the best of everybody, but now you know you layer in Cody and the experience that he's had in the postseason, the learning from that, and you can bucket Corey Seager in that same conversation.”
Kevin Kiermaier was the only Ray to dent Kershaw in six innings with a solo home run, and he was sufficiently impressed.
“One through nine, they’re dangerous,” he said of the L.A. lineup. “They can pitch. These are all things that we knew coming into the series, and they displayed that tonight. It’s going to be a battle for both teams, but once again, they had better at-bats than us tonight and did all the little things right.
"Once again, their pitchers kept us quiet throughout the whole night besides a late little rally there. It’s the World Series, two great teams playing each other, and they had the upper hand tonight.”
Kershaw deserves credit after all the blame heaped on him for previous October disappointments. Kershaw rarely has two dull outings in a row, and after losing Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, he came out firing in this one, adjusting his slider after some first-inning wobbles.
“Yeah, I noticed it in the bullpen,” catcher Austin Barnes said of Kershaw’s intense demeanor. “He kind of turned it on in the bullpen. I love when he gets there. He’s always intense, but he really wanted to come out here and throw well and set the tone for us -- and that’s exactly what he did. He really set the tone, he was efficient, and he was going after hitters."
Bellinger -- who put the club at risk with the shoulder injury he suffered celebrating his Game 7 home run on Sunday -- put concerns to rest with his blast off Tyler Glasnow that gave the Dodgers a 2-0 lead in the fourth and his glove to rob Austin Meadows of extra bases. He was tagged by Lakers great LeBron James on Twitter after his homer. Could L.A. get a second title this month?
“Yeah, that would obviously be unbelievable,” said Bellinger. “I think the city of Los Angeles ... to be a part of that would be extremely, extremely special. There's a lot of Dodger fans out in Los Angeles and all around the world, so we want to bring it home to them.”
And then there’s Betts. For anybody asking what makes this Dodgers club different from its World Series losers in ‘17 and ‘18, Betts gave a one-man explanation with a home run, walk, two stolen bases and a clinic on how to score from third base on a grounder to first base.
“The thought was maybe [there was] a little carryover effect from all of the emotions we went through, the highs and lows of the last series,” Betts said of being pushed to a winner-take-all game in the NLCS. “I mean, I think we all know why we're here: to win the World Series. And that's what we proved today.”
While the home runs are always the sexiest weapon in the Dodgers’ unlimited arsenal, this game swung as much on walks as anything. The Dodgers worked seven of them, three of them scoring, two of them leadoff walks.
This is how the Dodgers compiled the best record in baseball, 43-17. How they swept the first two rounds of the postseason against Milwaukee and San Diego. How they came off the mat to win three elimination games to get here. And what it might all mean in a few days, especially to Kershaw, whose Hall of Fame resume is lacking only a ring.
“Yeah, it's hard not to think about winning,” Kershaw said. “It's hard not to think about what that might feel like. But I think what I have to do, what we have to do as a team, is just [focus on] tomorrow. Just constantly keep putting in your brain, win tomorrow, win tomorrow, win tomorrow. When you do that three more times, then you can think about it all you want.
"It is hard not to let that creep in. But I know that I'm going to pitch again this Series, and I know that we've got three more games to win. And that starts with tomorrow.”
Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers for MLB.com since 2001.