Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw step closer to erasing ugly playoff past

ARLINGTON, Texas — Toward the tail end of this unprecedented baseball season, on a night that made history merely by its location, the most familiar and accomplished guy on the field did something we’ve seen him do before.

If you don’t want Clayton Kershaw to advance beyond this step — special dispensation to Rays fans this year and Giants fans always — then you don’t appreciate a quality tale of persistence.

Kershaw, arguably his generation’s best pitcher, dominated the Rays on Tuesday night to lift the Dodgers to an 8-3 victory in World Series Game 1 at Globe Life Field, giving his guys the upper hand in this first neutral-site Fall Classic. A crowd of 11,388, the majority clearly Dodgers fans, witnessed the fun contest, and kindly allow me to register my personal glee at that phenomenon after sitting in enough empty ballparks this season to last several lifetimes.

“Oh, it was just a great game for the whole team, really,” Kershaw humbly said afterward. “I kept us in it long enough for us to break it open.”

“Kershaw was on,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He had a pretty good breaking ball going, with deception. You can see why he’s heading to the Hall of Fame one day, after he’s done. He really did a nice job against us.”

Clayton Kershaw allowed just one run in six innings in the Dodgers' 8-3 Game 1 victory over the Rays.
Clayton Kershaw allowed just one run in six innings in the Dodgers’ 8-3 Game 1 victory over the Rays.Getty Images

Nice to the tune of one run, two hits and a walk in six innings as he struck out eight, his slider turning ultra-effective after a challenging first frame in which Kershaw said he was “bouncing my slider at 48 feet.” The left-hander said, “I know I’m going to pitch again in this series,” though neither he nor the Dodgers would mind if he didn’t.

This marks Los Angeles’ 14th playoff appearance in 31 tries since Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershiser attained baseball immortality in 1988, and the previous 13 took wrong turns somewhere. The last 10 have included Kershaw. And the brutal truth, as everyone in baseball knows and as Kershaw himself has acknowledged, is that the left-hander, a slam dunk to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame someday, has been too much a part of the problem and not enough part of the solution.

The 32-year-old evened his career tournament record at 12-12 in 36 appearances, 29 of them starts. He sports a 4.22 ERA in 183 ¹/₃ innings. His lifetime regular-season ERA? 2.43.

He grew up about 30 minutes from here, attending Highland Park High School in University Park, Texas, and his first World Series game in this baseball town brought to mind a similar performance against the Lone Star State’s other club. In Game 1 of the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium, Kershaw shut down the mighty Astros, permitting one run in seven innings and striking out 11, for a 3-1 win. The next time he pitched, Game 5 at Minute Maid Park, he fared considerably worse, getting rocked for six runs in 4 ²/₃ innings as, we learned more than two years later, the Astros illegally stole the Dodgers’ signs. The Astros wound up winning the seventh game, and the first title of their 46-year existence, in Chavez Ravine.

Plenty more October heartbreak, too many instances to list here, reside on his résumé. On his legacy.

That legacy also features three National League Cy Young awards, an NL Most Valuable Player trophy, sticking with the team that drafted and developed him (yes, it helps that the Dodgers easily can afford to pay him market value), starting his own foundation to help at-risk children and speaking eloquently and repeatedly about social justice this season as the issues deservedly leapt to the forefront of professional sports. He has done so much right with his platform. All he’s missing is a ring.

“It’s hard not to think about what that might feel like,” Kershaw said of a championship. “I think that’s what I have to do and what we have to do as a team: [Think about] just tomorrow. Do that three more times, and you can think about that all you want.”

It would establish another precedent: Kershaw smiling, regret-free, throughout a baseball offseason.