Clayton Kershaw ripped a pair of towels off his left arm and hopped from the bench. He scooped his glove and tucked his sweat- matted hair behind his ears. He spoke to no one as he bounded up the stairs.
A roar from the Dodger Stadium faithful greeted Kershaw as he reached a personal milestone at 9:01 p.m. on Friday. For the first time in a playoff career that stretched back to 2008, Kershaw was about to take a start into the ninth inning.
Inside the dugout, manager Dave Roberts prepared himself for clamor. Because it was all a ruse, a ploy designed to deplete the deficient roster of the Atlanta Braves in a 3-0 victory in Game 2 of the National League Division Series. Roberts was ready for the fallout. After a masterful outing from Kershaw, the manager did not care.
The crowd jeered when Roberts followed Kershaw out of the dugout. Moments after Braves catcher Tyler Flowers was announced as a pinch-hitter, Roberts called upon closer Kenley Jansen, forcing Atlanta to burn another player to bat in Flowers’ place. The fans showered Kershaw with cheers. Roberts heard only boos when he returned to the dugout.
The reaction did not faze him. Why should it? His club captured a 2-0 lead in this series, and Walker Buehler can finish the sweep Sunday at Sun Trust Park, as the Braves remain in search of their first run of the postseason.
On Friday, they could not solve Kershaw, the most decorated member of the Dodgers rotation.
Kept on the bench for Game 1, Kershaw responded with the lengthiest playoff outing of his career. Across eight scoreless innings, he permitted two hits. He struck out only three, but preyed on the eagerness of the Braves. He finished at-bats in expedient fashion, needing only 85 pitches, showing confidence in all of his arsenal.
“He pitched,” Roberts said. “He pitched. That was, for me, one of the best outings that I can recall, in the sense that he used his complete repertoire of pitches.”
The offense consisted of two home runs. Manny Machado took Braves starter Anibal Sanchez deep in the first inning. Yasmani Grandal added a solo shot in the fifth. It set up a save situation for Jansen, who secured the last three outs with minimal drama.
Game 2 marked the 20th postseason start of Kershaw’s career. His path to Friday was far from smooth. He had sputtered in the final month of the regular season, with a 3.89 ERA in September and a poor last start against San Francisco. He was wounded when he learned Hyun-Jin Ryu would start Game 1 over him, but heartened when Ryu spun seven scoreless innings of his own.
For Kershaw, the hours before the game passed like any other, only a day later than usual. He spent a moment by himself in the dugout before taking the field. He loosened up in the outfield with strength and conditioning coach Brandon McDaniel. He warmed up with Grandal in the bullpen. Grandal and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt accompanied Kershaw back to the dugout.
Atlanta attacked the game’s first pitch. It was a 92-mph fastball from Kershaw that cut the plate in two. Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. smoked a double into the left-center gap. The fans groaned.
Kershaw absorbed the haymaker, but did not go down. He retired third baseman Johan Camargo on a tapper to the mound. With Acuña at third, the infield moved in. Second baseman Enrique Hernandez was set up perfectly to secure a grounder from Freddie Freeman and keep Acuña from scoring. Kershaw finished the inning by freezing Nick Markakis with a curveball.
“The truth of the matter is that other than the very first pitch of the game, he executed brilliantly,” Honeycutt said.
Kershaw pumped his fist as he left the mound. The emotion may have seemed outsized for the moment — the first inning of his first game of the postseason — but the crowd still buzzed with approval. He was in the midst of a stretch with 14 consecutive batters retired, and energized when Machado punished Sanchez in the first with a homer on a 3-0 pitch.
Kershaw settled into a rhythm. He finished the second inning in six pitches. He threw nine in the third. A theme was emerging, as Kershaw sought to exploit the youth and impatience of the Braves.
Atlanta swung more often than any team in the National League, and Kershaw capitalized on the Braves’ aggression. He missed barrels, gobbling up three more outs in the fourth, with his pitch count at only 39. “When we’re able to do that, we’re able to give our team a chance to come out with a victory,” Grandal said.
Kershaw was a magnet for contact. In the fifth, Ozzie Albies cracked a 91-mph fastball up the middle. The ball connected with the fleshy portion of Kershaw’s right quadriceps, but he found his bearings and made the play at first.
An infield single by Ender Inciarte ended Kershaw’s streak of batters retired. Kershaw retired former Dodger Charlie Culberson on another ground ball, the 10th out made on the ground by the Braves, to end the inning. He showed confidence in his curveball, which can be a skittish weapon.
“The biggest thing is I was able to throw breaking balls for strikes early in the count,” Kershaw said.
Grandal eased Kershaw’s burden with his homer in the fifth, then Justin Turner came to Kershaw’s aid in the sixth. The crowd quieted to a murmur when Kershaw clipped pinch-hitter Lane Adams’ foot with a slider. Turner eased the tension by ranging to his right to corral an awkwardly located grounder from Acuña and feed Hernandez for the force at second. On the next pitch, Camargo chopped a slider toward Machado at short for a 6-4-3 double play.
From his perch in center field, Cody Bellinger idled and waited for action. He had time to study the characteristics of Kershaw’s weapons — because there were so few balls hit his way.
“His stuff was moving today,” Bellinger said. “It was impressive.”
The Braves managed to elevate the ball in the seventh. It made no difference. Kershaw made it through the inning at 73 pitches, and Roberts allowed him to bat in the bottom of the inning. Kershaw secured two strikeouts in the eighth, icing Inciarte with a 91-mph fastball and whiffing Culberson with an 87-mph slider.
Inside the dugout, Kershaw conferred with Roberts and Honeycutt. Roberts revealed the plan. Kershaw would return to the mound for the ninth. If Atlanta sent up Flowers to start the inning, Jansen would come in. If left-handed hitter Lucas Duda came up first, Kershaw would pitch. When Flowers emerged, Kershaw understood his evening was over.
“It was the plan all along,” Kershaw said.
In the aftermath, Kershaw glowed. He acknowledged he took extra satisfaction from the outing after the uproar earlier in the week. His children — 3-year-old daughter Cali Ann and 1-year-old son Charley — rushed the stage during his news conference and hopped on his lap.
A reporter asked Kershaw if his kids wanted him to finish the ninth. Kershaw turned to his daughter.
“Did you want da-da to finish?” Kershaw said.
Cali shook her head.