He strained not to admit it until after Game 2, but Clayton Kershaw wasn't exactly thrilled to be designated to start that and not the first game of the Dodgers' National League Division Series skirmish with the Braves. Even if taking the ball for Game 2 meant a little extra rest for the future Hall of Famer who's been worn down just enough by three seasons worth of back ailments, and starting the game with the Dodgers at a potent enough 1-0 series advantage, provided a bit more room to breathe.
Kershaw was unashamedly more amused Friday night when his small children, Cali and Charlie, crashed his postgame press confab. He was certainly a lot happier about beating the Braves, 3-0. And he admitted watching Hyun-Jin Ryu's seven scoreless innings in a Game 1 masterpiece gave him a little extra incentive. More than a little.
"Ryu threw so unbelievable last night that you just want to match him," Kershaw said. "That's all I was trying to do." While he was at it, Kershaw made sure the Dodgers would match the 1921 Yankees for opening a postseason series with back-to-back shutouts, combined or otherwise.
He shook any disappointment off, went out, and did what he's never done before in the postseason, with a fastball that wasn't even close to what he once threw almost in his sleep. He carved up the Braves for eight shutout innings, used only 85 pitches to do it, taking advantage of their early-count hackery, and atoned for a low strikeout outing by turning the strike zone into a personal fun house and the youthful, exuberant Braves into a group of hitters who seemed to forget what hard, solid, patient contact was.
He even made the world forget Fenway Park, where the Red Sox jumped the Yankees early (with J.D. Martinez's first-inning three-run homer) and often enough (an RBI single by Steve Pearce, a sacrifice fly by Xander Bogaerts, both in the third) to survive the Yankees pinpricking the shaky Red Sox bullpen to win their own Game 1, American League Division Series, 5-4. Or Minute Maid Park, where the Astros bludgeoned Corey Kluber and the Indians, 7-2, opening their ALDS with Alex Bregman, George Springer, and Jose Altuve going long as though the distance between last year's World Series and Friday night's lights was only a couple of days.
And Kershaw did it despite a right hamstring tightening up as the game went on from the moment he took a grounder by Albies off it in the fifth inning. He scrambled to retrieve the ball and get the out at first, but as it tightened up little by little, the Dodgers had to be somewhat alarmed.
Only nobody else watching the game thought he might lose anything after the eighth. Nobody but his daughter, Cali, that is. With his arms snugly around his children, Kershaw purred to the girl, "Did you want Daddy to finish?" The little girl flashed a smile whose resemblance to her father's is astonishing enough and shook her head. "She knows, she knows," Daddy grinned.
Actually, Kershaw did walk out to the mound for the ninth - but only to help manager Dave Roberts force Braves skipper Brian Snitker into burning a pinch hitter. Kershaw took the mound with righthanded Tyler Flowers stepping in to pinch hit. Then Roberts came out to lift Kershaw for closer Kenley Jansen, forcing Snitker to pull Flowers back in favour of lefthanded Lucas Duda, the former Met who hasn't been much of anything resembling his once occasionally dangerous self since becoming an ex-Met.
Then Roberts lifted Kershaw for Jansen. "The plan all along," Kershaw said, "was if they burned their bench, which is what we wanted to do, and Flowers came out, that Kenley had the ninth." And, except for Ronald Acuna Jr.'s one-out single, Johnson had the ninth well enough in hand, ridding himself of Johan Camargo on three pitches that ended in a pop out and striking out Freddie Freeman with a carnivorous cutter to end it.
"It was pretty special to watch," said Manny Machado of Kershaw's outing. "It was special to play behind."
Kershaw could have said likewise when, with Joc Pederson aboard on a leadoff double, Machado caught hold of Braves starter Anibal Sanchez's cutter and tore it over the left field fence in the bottom of the first.
"I think he has definitely evolved as a pitcher," said Dodger catcher Yasmani Grandal, who accounted for the third and final Dodger run with a leadoff shot into the right field bleachers in the bottom of the fifth. "We all get to a point where we need to change a few things. And I think he has. He has been able to use his command to throw every pitch he has to whatever corner and get guys missing and get quick outs when he needs to. He understands when he does that he is going to go deeper in games."
Kershaw didn't seem to care that his fastball wasn't what it once was. He threw curves and sliders around the rim of the strike zone like a lion tamer keeping his charge at bay, and the Braves couldn't get anything out of the infield safely off Kershaw after Acuna opened the game with a double. "When his curve ball's on," said Braves infielder Charlie Culberson, a 2017 postseason hero for the Dodgers who became a Brave in the Matt Kemp trade, "it's going to be a good night for him."
And a second straight bad night for the Baby Braves, who secured the National League East without having to worry about a season-ending tiebreaker to do it, but who looked so feeble against Kershaw and Ryu that now the question becomes whether they have any way to solve both the Dodgers' power and arms.
"You can't blame any one person," Snitker said. "I mean, it's just our whole lineup is having a hard time."
If they think it's going to get simpler come Game 3 on Sunday, they should probably think again. They get to face Walker Buehler, the rookie who was so masterful in forcing the Rockies to the Wild Card game this past Monday. He wasn't any more a strikeout machine then Kershaw was Friday night, but he one-hit the Rockies in six and two thirds innings and came out of the game with a 5-0 lead. And the only time the Braves faced him during the season, he flattened them in five and a third en route a 7-3 Dodger win in June.
Kershaw didn't get the complete-game shutout, but he got the next best thing. Among those giving him that standing O when he came out of the game in Roberts' deke were Mr. and Mrs. Sandy Koufax. The Dodger legend has a habit of turning up for Kershaw's postseason outings. On Friday night, Kershaw got into the habit of looking like Koufax without the truckload of strikeouts. It's a habit the Dodgers hope stays aboard for the rest of the postseason.
If it does, neither Kershaw nor the Dodgers will mind if his kids crash future postgame press conferences, too.