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Clayton Kershaw and the hope & promise of Game 1

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The Dodgers are in search of their first Game 1 win in three years

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Francisco Giants Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers will put their best foot forward on Friday afternoon, with Clayton Kershaw starting against the Nationals in Game 1 of the NLDS on the road at Nationals Park in Washington D.C.

There is something to be said for playing from ahead, a luxury the Dodgers haven’t enjoyed in any playoff series since winning the 2013 NLDS against the Braves. The Dodgers lost Game 1 in the 2013 NLCS against the Cardinals, the 2014 NLDS against St. Louis and the 2015 NLDS against the Mets, and lost all three series.

In fact, the last time the Dodgers lost Game 1 and still won the playoff series was the 1988 NLCS against the Mets. Since then the formula has been simple:

  • 4 times the Dodgers have won Game 1 (1988 World Series, 2008 NLDS, 2009 NLDS, 2013 NLDS), and 4 times the Dodgers won the playoff series.
  • 9 times the Dodgers lost Game 1 (1995 NLDS, 1996 NLDS, 2004 NLDS, 2006 NLDS, 2008 NLCS, 2009 NLCS, 2013 NLCS, 2014 NLDS, 2015 NLDS), and 9 times the Dodgers lost the playoff series.

Kershaw got the loss in the last two openers.

Widely regarded for some time as the best pitcher in baseball, Kershaw’s numbers in the postseason haven’t been as good as his performance in the regular season, though some of the difference is overblown.

Kershaw from 2013-2015 had a 1.92 ERA and 2.08 FIP in 93 regular season starts. Opposing batters hit .195/.238/.283.

In eight postseason starts during those three years, Kershaw had a 4.20 ERA and 2.55 FIP, with opposing hitters at .203/.259/.324. Kershaw is 2-5, and the team is 3-5 in those eight starts.

There have been several good to great starts during that span, including quality starts, and Kershaw’s four starts of at least six innings and no more than one earned run allowed since the start of the 2013 playoffs is beat only by Madison Bumgarner, with five.

Kershaw has a 1.92 ERA in three playoff starts on three days rest, with 23 strikeouts and only three walks in 19 innings.

“It is just the body of work. You know, you've got, I don't know how many starts I've had in the regular season, but hundreds, and you don't have that opportunity in the post-season,” Kershaw said on Thursday. “So you've got to make it count, and the bad ones stand out more, for sure.”

The two bad ones were allowing seven runs in four innings in Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS, and the stunning Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS with six dominant innings followed by a six-run seventh inning. Both of those losses to the Cardinals have sentenced Kershaw to “can’t come through in October” prison, no matter any subsequent evidence to the contrary.

With only a few postseason opportunities each year, getting Kershaw’s overall postseason ERA — 4.59 in 13 games, including 10 starts in his career — to improve will take chipping away a little bit each time, much like Andy Dufresne slowly and methodically digging his escape from Shawshank using the tiniest of rock hammers.

All it takes is time, and pressure.

But in a weird twist, it is the lack of pressure that might help Kershaw turn a postseason corner in 2016.

“I think in the past I've definitely felt that pressure more. But this year's been a little bit different for me, just as far as having to watch on the sidelines for two months,” Kershaw said. “Understanding how good our team is; you know, I think it's really kind of hit home for me a little bit as I've come back that I can definitely be a part of this and definitely help and definitely be a factor in winning. But I don't have to be the factor.”

Los Angeles Dodgers v Arizona Diamondbacks
Clayton Kershaw has allowed seven total runs in his last three postseason starts, but the Dodgers have lost two of the three games.
Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Kershaw, a man with three Cy Young Awards and two other top-three finishes plus an MVP award in the previous five seasons, was having his best year in 2016. He was pitching deeper into games, almost completely eliminated walks from his repertoire as if that were possible, and continued to rack up the strikeouts.

But that journey to a fourth Cy Young and possible second MVP was derailed by a back injury at the end of June. A herniated disc in his back wiped out 10 weeks of Kershaw’s sublime season, not to mention putting the Dodgers’ playoff hopes in dire straits.

But the Dodgers, who were eight games behind the Giants after Kershaw’s last start on June 26, became the sultans of swing, helping to pick up the slack for their fallen leader.

Justin Turner, Yasmani Grandal, Corey Seager, Adrian Gonzalez and Joc Pederson drove an offense that averaged 4.77 runs per game the rest of the season after averaging just 4.14 runs through that June 26 game. It helped the Dodgers go 38-24 (.613) between Kershaw starts, turning an eight-game deficit into a five-game division lead.

Kershaw has started five times since his return, and after what was essentially a major league rehab start in Miami, a shortened three-inning affair, Kershaw has been Kershaw. He has allowed four runs (two earned runs) in his last four starts, with 22 strikeouts and two walks in 25 innings.

The first of those four starts was at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 14, a game interrupted by two rain delays, during the second of which Kershaw stayed loose by throwing a simulated inning in the batting cage in the bowels of the stadium. Kershaw remained in the game after the rain delay and completed his five scoreless innings, six if you count the extra work.

“For him to go underneath in the tunnel, throw simulated innings, and then to finish that start and to get his pitch count up; and the next day, to come back and say, ‘I feel the normal soreness that I normally would,’ I think that was a big exhale for all of us,” manager Dave Roberts said.

“We tried to approach his whole season once Clayton went down that there's a good possibility that he might not be back,” Roberts added. “But after that start, then we were much more confident.”

And with good reason.

Kershaw finished his season with a major league best 1.69 ERA and MLB-record 0.725 WHIP, but fell 13 innings shy of qualifying. He finished with more wins (12) than walks (11), all while striking out 172 in his 149 innings.

In his last eight starts against the Nationals, dating back to 2012, Kershaw is 8-0 with a 0.88 ERA, allowing six total runs during that span, with 73 strikeouts and four walks in 61⅔ innings. That includes eight strikeouts in seven innings, allowing only one run at Dodger Stadium in a win on June 20.

Maybe now the Dodgers offense can give Kershaw some run support, too.

In Kershaw’s last seven postseason starts, dating back to his second NLDS start in 2013, the Dodgers have scored 19 total runs, and nine of those were in one game. The team scored 14 runs in those seven contests when Kershaw was in the game, including 0-2 runs five times.

You have a relatively pressure-free Kershaw, one who has since his return has even experimented with a drop-down arm angle after seeing Rich Hill do it — “I don't know, just looked kind of fun,” Kershaw said on Thursday — and one with fewer innings in a season at this point since 2007, so he’s relatively fresh.

“It's as good a scenario for what ended up happening as we could have hoped for,” Kershaw said. “You know, now, I'm ready to go.”

With a team behind him that has proven their resourcefulness all season, and especially if Red and the offense can locate a few runs, Game 1 for the Dodgers doesn’t have to be filled with pressure. Rather, it is an opportunity of hope, which brings us back to Dufresne.

“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

Game 1 info

Dodgers (91-71) at Nationals (95-67)

Time: 2:38 p.m. PT

TV: Fox Sports 1 (Kenny Albert, Tom Verudcci, Harold Reynolds, Jon Morosi)

Local radio: 570 AM (Charley Steiner and Rick Monday)

National radio: ESPN Radio (Dave O’Brien, Jim Bowden)

Online: Fox Sports Go app or Postseason.tv