The sun had started to set on Dodger Stadium as the trio left the bullpen, yet the 103-degree heat still clung to Chavez Ravine like a cloak. Clayton Kershaw walked shoulder to shoulder through the swelter with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and catcher Austin Barnes. An ovation greeted the pregame procession. Ten seasons in the major leagues, and four consecutive Octobers filled with regret, had braced him for this night.
Neither of his companions dared speak to Kershaw as they approached the dugout. He craves silence in these moments, the final minutes before he can stand in the middle of a ballpark and anesthetize his opponents. On Tuesday evening, in a 3-1 victory over Houston in Game 1 of the World Series, Kershaw fulfilled his mission and brought his team three wins away from a championship.
"I don't think there's a more competitive person than Clayton," Barnes said. "When he's got his stuff, he just out-wills people."
Barnes witnessed the synchronization of Kershaw's arsenal as they warmed up before the game. His perspective would soon be shared by those watching from the Dodgers dugout, the hitters in the Astros lineup and the 54,253 fans sweating into the night. After 28 seasons without the World Series in Los Angeles, Kershaw authored a performance fit for an earlier generation, striking out 11 Astros across seven innings of one-run baseball in a game that lasted two hours and 28 minutes.
To numb the Houston bats, Kershaw flung fastballs that clocked in the mid-90s, snapped late-breaking sliders and spun immobilizing curveballs. He walked none. He permitted three hits, one of them a solo home run by Alex Bregman in the fourth inning. He survived a scare in the seventh inning, his postseason house of horrors. He struck out 10 or more for the fifth time in his playoff career and delivered a stinging rebuke to those who question his performance at this time of year.
"He's still Clayton Kershaw," outfielder Enrique Hernandez said. "He's still the best in the game."
The praise for Kershaw overflowed from the Dodgers' clubhouse. "A special night," manager Dave Roberts called it. The performance was "his masterpiece," fellow pitcher Brandon McCarthy said. Kershaw was "unbelievable," said Justin Turner, who provided a go-ahead two-run home run in the sixth inning.
On Tuesday, Kershaw benefited from homers by Chris Taylor and Turner to outlast Astros ace Dallas Keuchel. Taylor ambushed Keuchel's first pitch of the game. Turner launched a two-run blast that just cleared the fence in left to snap a deadlock.
After cruising through the first two rounds, the Dodgers viewed Houston as a worthy adversary. The Astros led the sport in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. They struck out fewer than the 29 other clubs. The scouting meetings to prepare for this series dragged into the wee hours of the morning of the days heading into Tuesday. "It's the best lineup that we've seen all year," Roberts said. "There's so many ways they can beat you."
The heat did not bother Kershaw. He grew up in the suburbs of Dallas. This felt like home. Just past 4:20 p.m., he wore a windbreaker as he warmed up in the outfield. His presence elicited a sizable cheer from those who had maneuvered through the traffic on Sunset Boulevard to enter the ballpark.
After a nine-pitch first inning, Kershaw watched his team grab the lead.
Only three Dodgers had ever before faced Keuchel, the 2015 American League Cy Young Award winner. One of those was Taylor. Keuchel retired him three times in 2014, two years before the Dodgers acquired Taylor from Seattle, three years before Taylor revamped his swing and emerged as a budding star. The first pitch Keuchel threw on Tuesday was an 88-mph fastball down the middle. Taylor smashed it deep into the left-field pavilion, an estimated 447 feet.
"I think C.T. is the hero," Turner said.
Kershaw yielded only one hit on his first turn through the lineup. He spotted a curveball to ice outfielder Marwin Gonzalez for one strikeout in the third. After Keuchel struck out on a two-strike bunt, Kershaw fooled outfielder George Springer, who struck out four times, on a slider. The pitch crackled with life, darting low and late.
In the fourth, Kershaw paid for a misplaced fastball to Houston third baseman Bregman. The 93-mph heater hovered at Bregman's belt. He raked it over the left-field fence.
It was the seventh home run given up by Kershaw this postseason. He permitted a career-high number of homers during the regular season. The trend has followed him into October, but it did not continue beyond Bregman.
Kershaw rebounded from the solo shot to strike out second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa and first baseman Yuli Gurriel to end the inning.
Kershaw operated with pristine command of his slider and curveball, pumping them for strikes. General manager Farhan Zaidi credited Kershaw for the pregame plan assembled with Barnes and Honeycutt.
"Blending some hitter weaknesses with his own strengths," Zaidi said. "It seemed like that combination was really on display tonight."
Kershaw logged 73 pitches through six innings. He grounded out in the second at-bat of the bottom of the inning, then saw a rally begin behind him. Taylor took a five-pitch walk to bring Turner to the plate.
Nine days earlier, Turner had stamped himself into franchise lore with a walk-off homer against the Chicago Cubs. He would soon add another line to his historic resume. An 87-mph cutter from Keuchel drifted toward Turner's hands. The baseball soared to left, carrying until it landed on the other side of the fence.
All that remained for Kershaw was traversing the seventh inning. In his postseason career, his earned-run average as a starter in that frame was a stomach-turning 25.50. A leadoff single by Altuve did not inspire confidence among the crowd. "I know what the numbers are," Kershaw said.
He did not buckle. As Brandon Morrow warmed up in the bullpen, Kershaw induced a soft grounder off Correa's bat for one out. Gurriel rolled a grounder up the middle, where Corey Seager, back after sitting out the NL Championship Series, could have turned two. Seager fumbled the transfer to second baseman Logan Forsythe. He managed to secure one out but left Kershaw open for heartbreak.
There was little need to worry. Kershaw fired a 94-mph fastball, up and away, to catcher Brian McCann. A fly ball floated to Taylor in center field. Kershaw made it through, allowing Morrow and Kenley Jansen to secure the last six outs.
Kershaw is not expected to pitch again until the fifth game in this series. The Dodgers have ignored the temptation to use him on short rest in these playoffs. The benefit looked obvious Tuesday. Kershaw could not help but fixate on his few mistakes after the game. Yet he acknowledged the magnitude of his achievement.
"For the most part," he said, "I'll take it."