Clayton Kershaw kept piling up the strikeouts on Thursday night against the Braves, but the cost of that was throwing 124 pitches, the third highest total of his career. But as both Kershaw and manager Don Mattingly noted after the Dodgers' 6-1 win in Game 1 of the NLDS in Atlanta, the pitch count was not much of a concern.
"It's the postseason. You can kind of throw pitch counts out the window," Kershaw told Craig Sager on the TBS broadcast after the game. "This is what you get taken out early for earlier in the season, for games like this."
Kershaw threw a career-high 132 pitches in a win on May 14, but only reached 110 pitches in three of his final 24 regular season starts.
"As the game goes he seems to get stronger and stronger, so we don't get too concerned. We talked about letting him go back out, and he was probably strong enough to go back out at 120," Mattingly said. "He's that guy. We've been kind of protecting him. He's thrown a lot of innings but still only maybe once he's been to 120. We've been protecting him all year long, letting him get to this point."
He has thrown 120 or more pitches in a game only six times in his career, and three of those have come this season. But despite throwing a career-high 236 innings in 2013 his pitch count was its lowest since 2010. In reality the last three years have been virtually indistinguishable for Kershaw in terms of pitches thrown.
Kershaw is one of just eight pitchers to throw at least 10,000 pitches in the last three seasons. But raw pitch total isn't always the best measure of pitcher fatigue. Many people in baseball will say it's not about the number of pitches thrown, but rather pitches thrown under stress.
For a while, it looked like several of Kershaw's pitches came under stress. He had a 10-pitch at-bat to Justin Upton in the first inning, he faced a runner on second base with nobody out in the third inning, and nearly gave up a three-run home run to Brian McCann in the fourth.
After that fourth inning Kershaw allowed just one run and held a 5-1 lead, but had also thrown 77 pitches to that point. But after that Kershaw was absolutely rolling, and it's easy to see why he was allowed to stay in the game.
"My fastball command wasn't great there in the middle innings. I was falling behind guys, but A.J. [Ellis] did a great job, starting to go to more offspeed stuff in the middle innings," Kershaw. "I was able to get a few punch outs here and there when I needed them."
Kershaw struck out the side in the fifth inning then punched out two more to open the sixth before Evan Gattis put a bat on the ball and grounded out to shortstop. Kershaw opened the seventh inning with a walk to McCann, but followed with three more strikeouts to enter the pantheon of Dodgers postseason pitchers.
How did he do it?
Ellis said Kershaw only threw one changeup on Thursday, per Vincent Bonsignore of the LA Daily News, but the catcher also called his starting pitcher's slider "unhittable," per Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. Then there is this:
Braves hitters took 29 swings against Clayton Kershaw's breaking pitches. They put one in play-- a ground ball back to Kershaw— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 4, 2013
"Strikeouts just kind of happen, it's not something I'm really trying to do," Kershaw told Sager. "I give credit to A.J. on that. He recognized my fastball wasn't where it needed to be, and he adjusted the game plan accordingly."