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Clayton Kershaw’s Otherworldly Game One

Any lingering doubts about whether Clayton Kershaw could deliver in the postseason were quickly put to rest Tuesday night. Facing one of the best offenses in modern history on the game’s biggest stage, the Dodgers’ ace was nothing short of brilliant.

Using a dazzling arsenal of sliders, curves and four-seam fastballs, Kershaw dominated the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the World Series, allowing only one run in seven innings. He struck out 11 batters — including five in the first three innings — without allowing a single walk. Before Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled him, Kershaw was on his way to posting one of the greatest starts in World Series history.

Early on in the contest, he peppered the edges of the zone with fastballs, deploying his curve to throw the opposition off balance. Kershaw used all the tricks in his repertoire: At one point, he broke from his usual mechanics and dropped his arm slot to strike out Josh Reddick. Save for one fourth-inning mistake — a pitch that Alex Bregman launched into the stands — it was the type of excellence we’ve grown accustomed to from Kershaw in the regular season.

The Astros’ Dallas Keuchel couldn’t keep up. While he held his own against the strong Dodgers lineup, a pair of home runs hit by Chris Taylor and “Game Of Thrones”- character-turned-postseason-hero Justin Turner provided all the scoring Los Angeles would need. Going into the game, Keuchel was seen as especially weak against the Dodgers’ roster of disciplined low-ball hitters, but against almost any other pitcher, Keuchel might have won.

The two aces and their outstanding run prevention combined to produce the shortest World Series game in decades. At a brisk 2 hours and 28 minutes, the game was 32 minutes shorter than any other postseason game this offseason, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

Despite Kershaw’s dominance, Roberts pulled him after having thrown only 83 pitches. That made for the ninth-shortest World Series Game 1 outing since 2000.1 Typically, managers yank their starters when they run into any degree of trouble on a stage this big, but Kershaw’s start was different: His only seventh-inning blemish was a Jose Altuve single, and he’d struck out two men just before that. Roberts’ decision wasn’t surprising—he had the sixth-quickest hook of any manager in baseball this year, even after taking into account the quality of Roberts’ starters in each individual game (his pitchers tended to be pulled 0.9 innings earlier than expected). But pulling Kershaw was disappointing from a historical perspective.

Kershaw finished as the first pitcher in World Series history to rack up 10 or more strikeouts while allowing no walks and three or fewer hits.2 His 78 Game Score (an all-inclusive measure of the quality of a pitcher’s start) was within striking distance of the greatest World Series starts ever. A couple more innings of scoreless ball, plus another whiff or two, and Kershaw would have posted one of the 10 or so best games in World Series history. Among pitchers who threw only seven innings or fewer, only Orlando Hernandez’s Game 1 for the Yankees in 1999 and Madison Bumgarner’s Game 2 gem in 2012 for the Giants rank higher. (The vast majority of pitchers pitching this well in October were left on the hill for two more innings.)

Kershaw didn’t have the longest start, but it was great

Best World Series performances by Game Score* for pitchers in starts of seven innings or fewer

RK PITCHER YEAR GM NO. IP H BB SO R GAME SCORE
1 Madison Bumgarner 2012 2 7 2 2 8 0 79
2 Orlando Hernandez 1999 1 7 1 2 10 1 79
3 Clayton Kershaw 2017 1 7 3 0 11 1 78
4 Jaime Garcia 2011 2 7 3 1 7 0 77
5 Blue Moon Odom 1972 3 7 3 2 11 1 76
6 Pedro Martinez 2004 3 7 3 2 6 0 75
7 Curt Schilling 2001 4 7 3 1 9 1 75
8 Tommy John 1981 2 7 3 0 4 0 75
9 George Earnshaw 1930 5 7 2 3 5 0 75
10 Brandon Backe 2005 4 7 5 0 7 0 74

*Game Score is a Bill James-invented metric that judges each start on a (roughly) 0-100 scale, based on the pitcher’s statistics in the game.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Roberts probably made the right call, though — at least in terms of maximizing his team’s odds of victory. The Dodgers possess an outstanding bullpen that would likely outperform Kershaw’s third trip through the order. No matter how lethal the tall Texan looked in the first seven innings, he was bound to be worse as fatigue and familiarity caught up to him. And the short leash Roberts tugged on means that Kershaw will be fresh and well-rested if he needs to make another start or two in the series.

The notion of two more performances like this one ought to frighten the Astros more than tonight’s loss. Going down a game on the road does not doom Houston. And while the other Dodgers starters are formidable, no one on the roster compares to Kershaw. But if Kid K is hot and healthy enough to repeat this brilliance twice more, the Astros’ margin of error might have just shrunk drastically.

Footnotes

  1. The first year Baseball-Reference.com has reliable pitch counts.

  2. According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

Rob Arthur is FiveThirtyEight’s baseball columnist and also writes about crime.

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