On the opening night of the 2020 World Series, a puzzled nation watched a flagging starter get lit up as he passed the 100-pitch mark and asked, “Why are they leaving that guy in there? He’s cooked!” To the relief of Dodgers fans, the subject in question wasn’t Clayton Kershaw. The three-time Cy Young winner with the rocky postseason record pitched at the top of his game on Tuesday night, dominating the Rays while the Dodgers lineup waited out opposite number Tyler Glasnow and erupted for eight runs in the middle innings. The Dodgers cruised to an 8-3 victory.
Kershaw’s three previous starts of this postseason had offered a classic case of diminishing returns. After spinning eight innings of three-hit shutout ball while striking out a career postseason-high 13 Brewers in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series, he allowed three runs in six innings in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Padres, the last two via back-to-back solo homers by Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer as they faced Kershaw for the third time. In his NLCS Game 4 start against the Braves, which had been pushed back two days due to back spasms, Kershaw allowed just one run and four hits over the first five innings and 61 pitches, but when the lineup turned over, the dangerous Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman, and Marcell Ozuna all reached base — the last two via balls hit at 105 mph or higher — opening the floodgates to a seven-run inning in what became a 10-2 rout.
From the Dodgers’ side, this outing was hardly as fraught. While Kershaw allowed two of the first three Rays he faced to reach base via a Yandy Díaz single and a Randy Arozarena walk, he struck out Hunter Renfroe on a curveball in the dirt — his only swing and miss from among his 20 first-inning pitches — and made a good defensive play on a Manuel Margot dribbler to escape. That began a run of 13 straight Rays retired; he didn’t need more than 14 pitches in any of his other five innings, and three times needed 11 or fewer. His 92.5 mph first-inning fastball velocity boded well; it was just 0.1 off his season high, set in that Wild Card Series start, and matched his Division Series start. By comparison, he was at a season-low 90.7 mph in the first inning of his NLCS start.
Kershaw got just one swing and miss from among the first 10 sliders he threw, that for strike three against Willy Adames to start the second. He proceeded to establish the slider in the third inning, getting five swings and misses on the pitch while using it to strike out both Mike Zunino and Brandon Lowe, then whiffing Arozarena and Margot with the pitch in the fourth, and Adames again in the fifth. That last strikeout was the 200th of Kershaw’s postseason career, moving him past John Smoltz (who sent his congratulations from the Fox booth) into second place behind Justin Verlander, with 205. No sooner had that happened when Kevin Kiermaier ended Kershaw’s streak of 13 straight batters retired with a 382-foot solo homer to right field. By that point, however, the Dodgers had the lead thanks to a two-run fourth-inning homer by Cody Bellinger, his fourth of the postseason. More on that momentarily.
Through the first three innings, Glasnow had matched zeroes with Kershaw, working around a one-out walk of Corey Seager in the first inning, a two-out single by Chris Taylor in the second, and a two-out walk of Seager in the third. His fastball popped as high as 100.8 mph, and he’d rung up five strikeouts, three via his curve and two via heat that left Mookie Betts shaking his head:
there should be a special award for making Mookie Betts shake his head and look back at the plate in disbelief pic.twitter.com/oq1FwUD0xW
— Hannah Keyser (@HannahRKeyser) October 21, 2020
But oh, those bases on balls. Glasnow walked Max Muncy to lead off the fourth, the slugger’s 16th walk in 13 games. One out later, Bellinger pounced on a 98.2 mph first-pitch fastball — that after I noted his postseason struggles with high velocity on Monday — and launching a towering blast, 107.8 mph off the bat but just 378 feet thanks to its steep 36-degree launch angle. A nice souvenir for the Dodgers’ bullpen:
The 25-year-old slugger, who had managed to dislocate his right shoulder while celebrating his NLCS Game 7-winning solo homer, came up with a new way to get his kicks:
The Dodgers continued to threaten, as Taylor walked, then took second on a wild pitch, and had third base stolen thanks to a great jump, only to have Joc Pederson foul off the pitch. Glasnow recovered to strike out both Pederson and Austin Barnes, but by the time the inning ended, he’d thrown 86 pitches. Even with the Dodgers’ lead trimmed to one run by the time he took the mound in the fifth, his troubles were just beginning. He walked Betts on five pitches, and Betts proceeded to put on a baserunning show. He stole second, and after Seager walked for the third time, led a double steal; that made the Dodgers the first team to steal three bases in a single World Series inning since 1912, when the Giants did so against the Red Sox in Game 6 (one of those was also a double steal). Betts then scored on a Muncy chopper to first base, eluding Zunino’s tag:
By this point, Glasnow had thrown 106 pitches, 40 more than Charlie Morton threw in his scoreless ALCS Game 7 start before manager Kevin Cash gave him the hook in a move that raised plenty of eyebrows at the time. The question of why Glasnow, whose six walks represented the most in a World Series game since the Cardinals’ Edwin Jackson walked seven Rangers in Game 4 in 2011, was allowed to continue lingered when Will Smith dunked a single into center field, scoring Seager and widening the lead to 4-1.
The answer might have had something to do with the three-batter rule and the way that the Dodgers had ordered their lineup: R-L-R-L-R-L-R-L-R, making it difficult for any pitcher to maintain a platoon advantage for long. Cash’s choice of lefty Ryan Yarbrough, whose 2020 and career platoon splits are basically even, made sense in that light, but the move — after Glasnow had reached 112 pitches, not only a career high but also the highest total by a Ray since 2018 — didn’t stop the bleeding. After getting the lefty-swinging Bellinger to pop up, Yarbrough gave up an RBI single to the righty-swinging Taylor, then another to righty Enrique Hernández, pinch-hitting for Pederson. All six runs were charged to Glasnow’s room; while he struck out eight and allowed just three hits, his overall pitching line was as ugly as the 6-foot-8 righty is handsome.
Such is the nature of Kershaw’s postseason track record that even a rally to support him leaves cause to fret. As the Dodgers sent nine men to the plate in the fifth, he’d sat for around 35 minutes. Would he be rusty? Should he be pulled? Shouldn’t somebody at least be warming up behind him given his recent third-time-through-the-order troubles? Before anybody could dial the bullpen, Kershaw mowed the Rays down on nine pitches, highlighted by Justin Tuner throwing out Díaz out at first from his knees.
The Dodgers’ offense wouldn’t quit. Betts pummeled reliever Josh Fleming’s first-pitch sinker for a solo homer to right-center, and two batters later, Turner nearly homered as well, settling for a double off the top of the center field wall. Muncy followed with an RBI double to deep right center, by which point Dodgers manger Dave Roberts decided that Kershaw’s night was done at 78 pitches.
The Rays didn’t go down without a fight, mind you. Righty reliever Dylan Floro allowed a one-out single to Margot, and then a double to Joey Wendle, and then lefty Victor González gave up back-to-back RBI singles to Mike Brosseau and Kiermaier, trimming the lead to 8-3. Zunino, with four homers from among his eight postseason hits, represented a legitimate threat to get the Rays back into the game, but instead he hit a 105.6 mph rocket right back to González, who doubled Brosseau off second base for an inning-ending double play. From there it was all over but the shouting, give or take the Dodgers loading the bases in the eighth inning to no avail and Bellinger adding to his highlight reel with yet another home run robbery, this time against Austin Meadows:
Even with the catch and the homer, Bellinger had to settle for second banana next to Kershaw, who struck out eight while allowing just the two hits and one run. He netted 19 swings and misses, tied for his third-highest total of the season (he had 24 against the Brewers in the Wild Card Series). Eleven of his swings and misses came from among his 35 sliders, five from among his 31 four-seamers, and three from among his 12 curve. His final four-seam average velocity of 91.4 mph tied for eighth among his 14 starts this season.
This was the 10th time in 29 postseason starts that Kershaw allowed either zero or one run, and the second of this fall. In terms of Game Score — and here I’m using the Bill James original, via B-Ref’s Stathead — it was his eighth-best postseason start:
Note that Kershaw’s high score as far as this particular metric is concerned is also from this fall. Though his overall playoff record (12-12, 4.22 ERA) still won’t impress many, in 25 innings this postseason, he has a 2.52 ERA, 2.63 FIP, and 31-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which looks pretty Kershaw-like. He and the Dodgers have been in this exact position before — note his 2017 World Series-opening start above — but now they can throw memories of what transpired after that in the trash can and write a new ending.