The Dodgers were in full swagger for their playoff opener against the Atlanta Braves on Thursday, and you know what that means.
Sound effects and exclamation points.
Boom! Eleven minutes into the game, Joc Pederson drives a leadoff home run over the right-center field fence.
Crash! One inning later, Max Muncy gets funky with a three-run homer that disappears into the right-field pavilion.
Bang! In the sixth, Enrique Hernandez drives a ball into the left-field pavilion before dancing back to the dugout.
Buzz! For seven scoreless innings, Hyun-Jin Ryu makes Dodger management look like geniuses for giving him the playoff opener, blazing through the overmatched Braves in ways reminiscent of, yeah, vintage Clayton Kershaw.
This 6-0 Dodgers victory in Game 1 of the National League Division Series wasn’t so much a baseball game as a cartoon boxing match, a giant pounding his smaller opponent through the canvas until the only thing visible is a pair of twitching eyes.
Said Hernandez: “It was huge.”
Said Braves battered starter Mike Foltynewicz: “They got their power up and you saw what happened.”
This is supposed to be a five-game series, but it doesn’t feel like it will last that long considering the Dodgers will come back with Kershaw on Friday in Game 2, and then run out their true staff ace Walker Buehler on Sunday in Game 3.
“Obviously it’s not only huge because we have a one-game lead in the series,’’ said Hernandez. “With Kershaw on the mound in Game 2 …t he pressure is on them now.”
When reminded that Buehler was waiting in the wings, Hernandez just shook his head.
“Yeah,” he said, laughing.
The only disappointment was that Dodger Stadium did not sell out, perhaps because this is the beginning of a sixth consecutive postseason and, by now, fans are weary of fooling with the preliminary rounds.
As for those who showed up, they’ve seen this before, and pretty recently.
Last year in their playoff opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Dodgers rocked outmatched Taijuan Walker for four runs in the first inning, including a three-run homer by Justin Turner, en route to a 9-5 victory that began a series sweep.
This year, the victim was equally wide-eyed Foltynewicz, who, in his playoff debut, allowed four runs in two innings before being mercifully pulled.
“To put your team down 4-0 in the second inning is not where you want to be,” Foltynewicz said, later adding, “Then you have Kershaw tomorrow.”
The Dodgers, meanwhile, are exactly where they want to be.
At the end of the turbulent regular season filled with questions, they have come together to pose an entirely different kind of query.
Could they be even playing better than last year’s World Series team?
“We’re playing really good baseball,” said Manager Dave Roberts. “We have a lot of good players … this is a very focused and determined group.”
How good is really good?
Well, despite facing daily must-win situations, they’ve won their last five games while outscoring opponents 39-9. Meanwhile, on a perfect fall Thursday evening here, they perfectly answered some of their autumn questions.
Could they survive without their future Hall of Famer as their pitching anchor? The answer was a resounding yes. It was written in this space that it was a smart decision to pitch Ryu in the opener instead of Kershaw — a controversial move made earlier this week — but I had no idea it would be this smart.
While striking out eight with no walks, Ryu allowed only one runner to reach second base. He improved his reputation as a big-game pitcher by lowering his ERA in four postseason starts to 1.96.
“He was on, on, on,” said Hernandez.
That the Dodgers can now hand the ball to Kershaw with a one-game lead is likely to turn the Braves off, off, off.
“Amazing,” said Turner.
As for Kershaw, he smiled throughout a pregame news conference about the decision, but wouldn’t say he agreed with it, noting only, “They had theirreasons, and I accepted them.”
Everyone could see those reasons Thursday, and now the recently struggling Kershaw is charged with making his own case Friday.
“I think I probably would have been fine either way,” said Kershaw, and we’ll soon find out.
Then there was the question of home runs. The Dodger hit a franchise record 235 homers this year, but folks wondered if that launch angle stuff would play in the postseason.
So far, so good, with their big bats hitting the ball so hard, each long fly ball elicits huge cheers from fans now certain that anything in the air will soon disappear. Seriously, the 28-year-old Muncy wasn’t even in the major leagues last year, and he homers not only 35 times during the regular season, but in his second careerpostseason plate appearance.
“Homers feel good, obviously,” said Hernandez.
Finally, there was the question of whether the free-swinging Dodgers could also put together the sort of smart plate appearances that win championships.
Well, check that box too. They drew eight walks from Braves pitchers while working starter Foltynewicz into such deep counts, he threw 28 pitches in the first inning.
“This is the time where you want everyone to be their best and not try to do too much and pass the baton, and we did a really good job of that tonight,” said Turner. “Taking good at-bats, linking them together, make guys work hard.”
The Braves worked hard. The Dodgers barely broke a sweat. This doesn’t seem to be a fair fight. It certainly doesn’t appear like it will be a long one.