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Clayton Kershaw Might Have Struggled in the Playoffs, but He’s Incredible in the World Series

Despite some road bumps in postseasons past, the best pitcher in baseball put on a masterclass against the best offense in baseball as the Dodgers took a 1-0 series lead against the Astros

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The most effective way to build up an implacable onscreen villain is the intimidating victory: The Eden Hall varsity stops the Flying V, the Borg capture Captain Picard, the White Walkers take Hardhome. With Clayton Kershaw on the mound, the Dodgers took Game 1 of the World Series 3-1 at home, and the scariest part was how easy it all looked.

It felt cinematic, too. Not just because it was in Los Angeles, with the mountains behind Dodger Stadium turning red in the sunset, but because when Kershaw and the Dodgers came out in the top of the first, it felt like the climax of a heroic poem. The Dodgers, who play in a city that’s had seven major titles in the past 20 years and spend a mid-sized NATO country’s defense budget on payroll, would never accept the “lovable loser” moniker even if it were offered, but it had been 29 years since the franchise played in a World Series. This is Kershaw’s 10th big league season, but even after seven playoff appearances and five NLCS runs, it’s his first Fall Classic.

He looked dominant from the start, retiring the first seven batters he faced. Kershaw allowed one run, three hits, and no walks in seven innings. Despite only eight of his 83 pitches resulting in a swing-and-miss, he struck out 11 batters from the hardest lineup in baseball to strike out this year.

“I think [the Astros are] a really good hitting team. They hit a lot of homers and don’t strike out,” Kershaw said. “There’s little room for error, so it’s important for me to establish pitches, be able to throw multiple things for strikes, and thankfully I was able to do that tonight.”

When Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled Kershaw after just seven innings of the hottest World Series game on record, the Astros had to contend with Brandon Morrow, who flashed 100 miles an hour twice in his 10-pitch, three-out stint, and closer Kenley Jansen, who earned the save without allowing a baserunner, as he had 129 times before in his Dodgers career, counting the regular season and the playoffs.

Dodgers center fielder Chris Taylor led off the bottom of the first with a 447-foot home run off the first pitch he saw, which, coupled with the ease with which Kershaw had taken care of the Astros in the top of the first, made this game look like it was going to be a boat race. Maybe, in some strange way, it would have been less intimidating if the Astros had just not played well and gotten atomized, but they didn’t.

Astros starter Dallas Keuchel, who’s won a Cy Young more recently than Kershaw, settled down quickly and needed just 17 batters after Taylor to record his first 17 outs. And when Kershaw finally made a mistake, leaving a fastball out over the plate, Alex Bregman put it in the seats to tie the game in the fourth. The Astros were one strike from getting through six innings—on the road, in stifling heat, with Kershaw stalking the zone like a hungry panther—tied.

Kershaw threw in the mid-90s with two baffling breaking balls—literally baffling, judging by the reactions of some of the six Astros who struck out looking against the Dodger ace—which allowed him to spend less than half of his pitches on fastballs.

“Tonight was one of those nights, I think for the first time in awhile, where we’ve seen all three of his pitches synched up,” Roberts said. “He was repeating the delivery, held the velocity, was throwing the baseball where he needed to.”

Keuchel is more subtle—a teasing, stop-punching-yourself kind of pitcher—and he has to be, since he doesn’t have The Gas. If Keuchel had The Gas, the cutter he left up and in to Justin Turner—with two outs, two strikes, and Taylor on first—might have been traveling faster than 87 miles an hour, and Turner might not have hit it over the left-field fence.

Even though Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski, of the much-maligned Astros bullpen, held the Dodgers scoreless after Keuchel left the game, Turner’s home run was the difference. It allowed Kershaw—the latest in a line of all-time greats made to face questions over imperfect playoff performances (in his case, a 4.40 career playoff ERA heading into the game)—to put one more spear in the side of that beast. Not only because it was a masterful performance on the biggest stage of his career, but because it puts the Dodgers in the driver’s seat for a ring.

“You can’t really tell the difference between another postseason or World Series start,” Kershaw said. “But it definitely feels good to say it was the World Series, and it feels good to say we’re 1-0.”

Before the game, legendary Dodger Stadium organist Dieter Ruehle banged out the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” a number that illustrates what allowed Kershaw to lead the Dodgers to victory.

So many of Kershaw’s previous failings have come in the clothing of one of those other great literary tropes: the lone hero taking on the world. Kershaw has frequently stood between the Dodgers and elimination for one inning too long, one day too early, or one run short of necessary run support. Implacable as Kershaw looked, he was implacable only because the Dodgers were able to do to Keuchel what the Astros weren’t able to do to him, and because Roberts had enough faith in Morrow and Jansen to close it out, even though Kershaw had thrown just 83 pitches.

That’s what makes the Dodgers so relentless—their stars are first-round picks like Kershaw and Corey Seager, who went 2-for-3 after missing the NLCS due to injury, and Yasiel Puig, who commanded an eye-watering $42 million contract when he defected from Cuba. But they’re also pulling postseason heroes out of the ground like potatoes. The two Dodgers who scored, Taylor and Turner, were journeyman infielders before turning into stars upon their arrival in Los Angeles. The two relievers who followed Kershaw—Morrow and Jansen—are, respectively, a reclamation project who’s on what seems like his fourth last chance and a converted catcher.

In total, they constitute the kind of opponent that can take a very good outing from Keuchel and the best effort of a 101-win opponent and then swat it away like a gnat. It will require quite a counterpunch to take four of the next six games from these Dodgers, if they can be beaten at all.