ATLANTA — If Clayton Kershaw continues to pitch the way he did Thursday night, the long-term contract to which the Dodgers intend to sign him this winter could cost them even more than they expect.
That's fine with minority owner Magic Johnson, who was at Turner Field to watch Kershaw overcome early control problems to lead the Dodgers to a 6-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of their best-of-five National League division series.
"We already know we have to give him a lot of money," Johnson said. "What's a few more zeros?"
Backed by five runs in the first four innings, Kershaw earned his first career playoff victory by limiting the Braves to a run and three hits over seven innings.
His 12 strikeouts were the most by a Dodgers pitcher in a postseason game since Sandy Koufax struck out 15 New York Yankees in Game 1 of the 1963 World Series.
The most incredible aspect of the performance was that Kershaw couldn't throw the ball where he wanted.
"It was more fastball command than anything," Kershaw said.
He threw 19 pitches in the first inning, which included a 10-pitch at-bat by Justin Upton. He threw 77 pitches through four innings and 91 through five. He walked three batters.
"That was our game plan," Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Make him pitch a little bit. When you look up and you see 77 pitches in the fourth inning, you feel like you have a chance. But he is what he is. He turned it up the next three or four innings and we didn't really get good swings at him."
Once Kershaw gained a feel for his curveball in the fifth inning, the Braves were finished.
Kershaw struck out nine of the last 11 batters he faced, including six in a row in one stretch.
"As soon as we got on the same page and figured out the off-speed pitch, that was the ticket," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "Those fifth, sixth and seventh innings, he rolled through and got all those strikeouts. That was amazing."
The Dodgers hitters repaid Kershaw for all the times they didn't hit for him in the regular season.
Yasiel Puig scored the first run of the game on a second-inning sacrifice fly by Skip Schumaker. Ellis doubled in Juan Uribe later in the inning to increase the lead to 2-0.
The Dodgers doubled their advantage to 4-0 in the third inning on a two-out, two-run home run by Adrian Gonzalez off Braves starter Kris Medlen.
The game was about over. Over the last three seasons, Kershaw had a four-run lead 26 times. The Dodgers won 25 of those games.
Ellis doubled again in the fourth inning and scored on a single by Mark Ellis for a 5-0 lead.
Before the game, Johnson spoke of the importance of signing Kershaw to a long-term deal. Kershaw will be eligible for salary arbitration next year and free agency after the 2014 season.
"You know we can't lose our guy," Johnson said. "We don't want to lose him. And unless something crazy happens, we won't lose him."
Based on conversations President Stan Kasten and General Manager Ned Colletti have had with Kershaw's agent, Johnson said, "We know where we have to be."
"We know what we got in Clayton," Johnson said. "We got more than just great pitcher. He's a great leader. This dude prepares. Everybody sees that and follows his lead."
Johnson acknowledged that the anticipated deal with Kershaw probably would prevent the Dodgers from pursuing Robinson Cano, who will be a free agent this winter. Cano will be paid, Johnson said, but "probably not by us."
The Dodgers are in prime position to return to Los Angeles with a two-game lead, as they will send Zack Greinke to the mound Friday.
Greinke was as candid in his news conference Thursday as Kershaw was relaxed in his the day before. Asked who he thought had the best chance to win the World Series, Greinke replied, "It seems to be who, a lot of times, is playing best at the end, and I don't really know who that is. … We definitely weren't playing the best at the end."
They played pretty well Thursday.
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