By Jon Weisman
Clayton Kershaw didn’t have his best stuff, not by a longshot. But he had some of his best guile, some his best perseverance and all of his best bullpen.
With four Dodger relievers throwing four shutout innings, the Dodgers survived a nail-biting, seat-squirming Game 1 in the National League Division Series, edging the Washington Nationals, 4-3.
Kershaw lasted five innings, punching out seven batters but bobbing and weaving through three runs on nine baserunners. Joe Blanton, Grant Dayton, Pedro Báez and Kenley Jansen worked the back end, to make a Dodger offense led by homers by Corey Seager and Justin Turner stand up.
Seager annihilated the first pitch he saw in this postseason, drilling it 109 miles per hour and 430 feet away to dead center for a one-out homer and 1-0 first-inning lead. By 39 days, Seager became the youngest Dodger ever to homer in the playoffs, breaking Pete Reiser’s 75-year-old record.
But no sooner did Dodger fans experience their first October 2016 elation than they suffered their first horror — Turner taking an 0-1 pitch on the left wrist, immediately drawing anguished thoughts of the shot to Hanley Ramirez’s ribs in the opening inning of the 2014 National League Championship Series.
And yet, not only would Turner stay in the game, in the third inning, he would follow Andrew Toles’ single, Kershaw’s sacrifice and Chase Utley’s RBI single with a two-run homer to left, putting Los Angeles ahead, 4-0.
Blessed with a lead from the start, Kershaw sweated and snorted and struggled and s-worded his way through five innings so labor-intensive, they threatened to single-handedly revive the union movement in the nation’s capital. It was never easy, not even when he came out breathing fire in the first inning and struck out the side, taking eight pitches to set down Bryce Harper and 17 total.
Kershaw barely survived a second inning that, to his defense, had little defense. After Daniel Murphy singled, the Dodgers turned only a force play but not a double play on a slow grounder to short, then after a Ryan Zimmerman single and strikeout of Danny Espinosa, Chase Utley muffed a potential inning-ending ground ball. It was shocking, especially considering Utley had made only five errors in the regular season — and just one of those on a grounder, to load the bases.
Max Scherzer then extended Kershaw for eight pitches before hitting a momentarily suspenseful pop fly behind the infield that Seager coolly claimed.
Kershaw couldn’t flee the third inning so well, however. With two out and runners on second and third following a Harper double, Werth walk and double steal, Kershaw hung a 3-2 slider that Anthony Rendon smacked to left, cutting the Dodger lead to 4-2. Though Espinosa would provide an escape hatch with his second strikeout, Kershaw was clearly scuffling at this point, boasting six strikeouts but bristling with 66 pitches.
Once Nationals catcher Pedro Severino led off the fourth with a double, Kershaw was at high anger and beyond frustrated. Severino advanced to third on a Scherzer grounder that was nearly Utley’s second error and scored on Trea Turner’s sacrifice fly. That made it a one-run game, with Harper popping out to end the inning.
With Kershaw now at 83 pitches, the Dodgers had the opportunity to pinch-hit for him in the top of the fifth, but Dave Roberts didn’t want to go to the bullpen that soon. The choice looked to have grim consequences after Werth hit a leadoff single on a 1-2 curveball and Rendon shot a one-out liner off Turner’s glove to put the go-ahead run on. Zimmerman knocked a shot 103 mph but to Josh Reddick in right, and then Espinosa struck out for a third time on Kershaw’s biggest curveball of the night.
When Public Enemy No. 1 arrives just in time … pic.twitter.com/yPGuJn2jxX
— Dodger Insider (@DodgerInsider) October 7, 2016
That was enough. Kershaw, who hadn’t thrown more than 91 pitches since he went on the disabled list in June, had gone 101 the high way. But the Dodgers were still winning, and had their seven-man bullpen to go after the final 12 outs.
The set-up men came in and got outs in small bunches, like plucking grapes. Blanton handled the first two-thirds of the sixth. When the Nationals’ Turner walked, Dayton entered and split his three outs between the sixth and seventh. When Murphy walked, Báez entered and completed the seventh — aided in no small part by a bullet throw by Yasmani Grandal to nail Murphy trying to steal, Charlie Culberson shorthopping the ball and making the tag.
When the bottom of the eighth again, the Dodgers stubbornly unable to extend their lead, Báez was on the mound, but Jansen was already throwing in the bullpen. After Zimmerman flied to left, Roberts made his move. With five outs to go, Jansen was in.
Pinch-hitter Stephen Drew fouled out on Jansen’s first pitch, but former Dodger Clint Robinson opposite-field doubled, just inside the third-base line.
Another recent Dodger, Chris Heisey, came up, and Jansen fell behind 3-1 in the count. Jansen then got a massive swing and miss on a high cutter for strike two, then whiffed Robinson for an inning-ending called strike three.
Three outs to go. But before the bottom of the ninth, a little more suspense.
With two out, Yasmani Grandal and Howie Kendrick singled, with Kendrick advancing to second on a throw to try to get Grandal. Jansen, of all people, was on deck. The Dodgers decoyed the notion of sending Andre Ethier to pinch-hit for Jansen, putting Josh Fields up in the bullpen. Not deterred, Nationals reliever Mark Melancon walked Yasiel Puig intentionally, and Jansen came to the plate, 1 for 3 in his big-league career after starting in the minors as a catcher. He struck out, however gamely, on five pitches.
Jansen put back his batting helmet and came out for the bottom of the ninth. He struck out Trea Turner. Harper lined one smoothly at Utley. Werth stepped in. After ball one and a called strike, Werth fouled off four pitches, then went diving futilely for strike three.
For the Dodgers, Jansen had their first postseason save of at least five outs since Jay Howell in Game 4 of the 1988 World Series.
After 27 pitches from Jansen and 64 from the bullpen overall, the Dodgers had won NLDS Game 1 on the road. The Dodgers handed Kershaw, after all the postseason games in which he pitched well with nothing to show for it, a hard-fought win.
Steve Timberlake (@Linkmeister)
Jon, do you know how Pederson decides to use that jaw-protecting flap on his helmet? He had it on for his second AB but not for his third.
I thought he used it against lefties but I guess he’s still experimenting.
John G. Blanchard (@isednom)
Joc, I think it is safe to say, is a random dude, as the kids like to say.
Although this was a bullpen won game, you can’t take credit away from Kershaw for proving he can battle with the best of them, even when he doesn’t have his best stuff. A well deserved victory for him.