LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday night began their postseason in the usual manner, by handing the ball to Clayton Kershaw for game one of series one, just as they had the previous four Octobers. Sometimes they’ve won and sometimes they’ve not, but this is where it always begins, this time on a sticky night at Dodger Stadium with 104 wins behind them, largely forgotten, and another road ahead.
Whether that’s a long journey or a short one will depend in part on Kershaw, the undisputed ace and three-time Cy Young Award winner whose relationship with the postseason has been sensational, has been unbecoming, has been, yes, mixed.
Against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 1 of the National League division series, it was more of that. More of everything.
The Dodgers beat the Diamondbacks, 9-5, before 54,707 fans at Dodger Stadium. Kershaw pitched 6 1/3 innings and allowed five hits, four of them solo home runs, including on the final two pitches – Nos. 99 and 100 – of his start.
The Dodgers scored four in the first, three on Justin Turner’s home run, and three in the fourth, one on a Turner single. They would put the game away in the eighth with two insurance runs off Arizona’s weary bullpen.
The 93-win Diamondbacks had required both of their preferred Game 1 starters – Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray – in their wild-card win against the Colorado Rockies on Wednesday. Their choice for Game 1, then, Taijuan Walker, pitched one inning, which did not go well and left seven innings for their bullpen. After five innings, the Dodgers led, 7-1, and the Diamondbacks would require more than the occasional solo home run.
Kershaw pitches against the men put before him and, this time of year, to the handful of past results that did not quite sit with the rest.
He leaned early on a perky fastball of 95 and 96 mph, forcing those while waiting on the right moment, or the right feel, for his breaking ball. In the first inning, he struck out Paul Goldschmidt on one of those big fastballs and then J.D. Martinez on a slider, just the second slider of the inning. He never did appear to consistently command either the curve or slider.
Within minutes, or more precisely 18 pitches into Walker’s night, Kershaw had himself a 3-0 lead. Chris Taylor singled, Corey Seager walked, and Justin Turner launched a 2-and-2 fastball into the left-field bleachers. Walker followed the flight of the ball and, muttering to himself, held his glove toward the umpire for a fresh baseball. It would be 20 more pitches before Walker recorded his first out, as on his 38th, with the Diamondbacks’ bullpen in frantic preparation, he struck out Curtis Granderson with a high fastball. The Dodgers led then, 4-0, as by then Yasiel Puig had doubled and bat-flipped and crotch-chopped the Dodgers another run. As it was, Walker threw 48 first-inning pitches.
In 18 previous postseason appearances, 14 of them starts, Kershaw was 4-7 with a 4.55 ERA. And one save. The bulk of that ERA, nearly twice his career regular-season ERA, came in five starts, one of them in 2009 against the Philadelphia Phillies, when he was 21 years old. Two of them – in 2013 and 2014, and accounting for 15 earned runs across 10 2/3 innings – were against the St. Louis Cardinals. And one, in which he allowed five runs, four of them earned, in five innings, was in Game 6 of last year’s NLCS, when the Chicago Cubs eliminated Kershaw’s Dodgers. Friday marked Kershaw’s first win at home in the postseason.
Walker, who debuted with the Seattle Mariners in 2013 and was traded last winter to the Diamondbacks, had never made a postseason start. He had, however, posted a 1.64 ERA in two games at Dodger Stadium this season and won them both. He grew up just east of Riverside, California, about an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Dodger Stadium, and on Friday night left tickets for his mother, two brothers, sister and wife. He had typically pitched well in front of them, as his ERA at Angel Stadium is less than one.
This time, Walker pitched just the one inning, just those 48 pitches, and watched as the Diamondbacks attempted to play themselves back from the four-run deficit.