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Column: Clayton Kershaw is a wild-card dominator, but can he be a World Series winner?

Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw struck out postseason career-high 13 batters in a 3-0 victory.
Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw struck out postseason career-high 13 batters in a 3-0 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 2 of their National League wild-card series at Dodger Stadium on Thursday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Clayton Kershaw has enjoyed October nights like this before, when Playoff Kershaw performed as if he was Regular-Season Kershaw.

Except in baseball, it’s not the first impression that counts most.

It’s the last.

Which is why the enduring images of Kershaw in the postseason are of him bent over with his hands on his knees, not of him receiving congratulatory handshakes in front of the Dodgers bench.

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So, go ahead and be encouraged by the eight scoreless innings he pitched in a 3-0 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers that completed a two-game sweep in their National League wild-card series. Marvel at his 13 strikeouts Thursday night that established a personal postseason best. Celebrate how the Dodgers advanced to another division series, in which they will take on the San Diego Padres or St. Louis Cardinals in Arlington, Texas.

Just maintain some perspective. Kershaw certainly did.

The Dodgers, behind a stellar performance by Clayton Kershaw, beat the Milwaukee Brewers 3-0 to sweep the wild-card series and advance to the NLDS.

“Just with the expanded playoffs, it’s kind of like now the postseason is starting,” Kershaw said. “Nonetheless, we still had to do our job, we still had to get there. Now we get to get going.”

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An unknown player can change his reputation in a single game. A player of Kershaw’s stature can’t.

Kershaw will have to do this again and again and again.

And maybe a couple of more times after that.

Only then, only after he has won a World Series, will the greatest regular-season pitcher of his generation be considered the best pitcher of his generation, period.

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Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw is congratulated by teammate Walker Buehler.
Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw is congratulated by teammate Walker Buehler after Thursday’s win over the Milwaukee Brewers.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

This could be the year.

Kershaw is backed by a lineup that is powered by Mookie Betts, who doubled in a run in Game 1 and doubled in two more in Game 2.

He has developed a comfortable partnership with Austin Barnes, whom he has compared to former personal catcher A.J. Ellis.

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“I maybe shook him off twice, maybe three times,” Kershaw said.

And his next game will be a literal home game. His home in suburban Dallas is about 10 minutes from the hotel at which the Dodgers will be staying.

Kershaw has never explained the discrepancy between his regular-season and postseason track records.

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Highlights from the Dodgers’ 3-0 win over the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 2 on Thursday.

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Maybe he doesn’t want to. Or maybe he can’t.

Last week, after making the last of his 10 starts in the pandemic-shortened regular season, he offered a theory as to why this October could end differently.

“Maybe only having 10 starts or whatever, maybe that’s a good thing,” he said. “I don’t know.”

That very well could be the case.

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Kershaw has thrown as many pitches over the last 13 years as Santa Claus has delivered gifts, which made how he looked Thursday particularly striking.

Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner’s in-game ESPN interview was widely panned and was especially unpopular with manager Dave Roberts, who laid down the law.

“It was just a Kershaw outing,” Barnes said. “It was awesome.”

Kershaw looked youthful.

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He looked powerful.

He looked electric.

Kershaw started the game by striking out Avisail Garcia and Christian Yelich and cruised from there. He gave up only three hits. He walked one.

He consistently threw his improved fastball and slider for first-pitch strikes. He generously mixed in his curveball to keep the Brewers guessing.

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“They never could build anything,” Betts said. “They never could get started. You can’t ask for any more than what he did today.”

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Kershaw threw 93 pitches. His efficiency preserved a bullpen that had to cover five innings in Game 1 after Walker Buehler made an early departure because of concerns that a blister on his pitching hand could reappear.

“This was great,” Kershaw said. “This was a fun night for me. Get the postseason off to a good start. We get to move on too.”

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This was the kind of start the Dodgers were counting on Kershaw to make. This was the kind of start they needed him to deliver.

And he did.

This wasn’t a first.

In 2013, he made two starts against the Atlanta Braves in a NL Division Series that were only four days apart. The Dodgers won both games.

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In 2015, he limited the New York Mets to a run in seven innings to force a fifth and final game of their Division Series.

He posted a similar line against the Chicago Cubs in Game 2 of the NL Championship Series in 2016.

Terrance Gore might not have a big role in the Dodgers’ postseason plans, but manager Dave Roberts knows the influence a base-running specialist can have.

In his first World Series start, against the Houston Astros in 2017, he gave up only a run over the first seven innings of a Dodgers victory.

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Of course, that’s not what Los Angeles remembers.

What the city remembers are meltdowns against the Cardinals, the blown leads against the sign-stealing Astros, the tragic relief appearance against the Nationals last season, when he gave up back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning to give up a lead.

There’s a lesson there.

How this start will be remembered will depend on what comes after.


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