Kershaw’s Dominance and a Few Well-Timed Hits End Milwaukee’s Season

The first plate appearance of Game 2 in the Wild Card Series between the Brewers and the Dodgers went like this: a high fastball from Clayton Kershaw, coming in at 92.7 mph. A slider, fouled off by Avisaíl García. Then another slider — a swing and a miss. And then another slider, the best of all of them, for the strikeout.

That first plate appearance set the tone for the rest of the night. Though the 3-0 final score may suggest a close game, in reality, it didn’t feel all that close. Kershaw utterly dominated the Brewers, who, as the broadcast frequently noted, end their season never having cleared the .500 mark. Through eight scoreless innings of work, he struck out 13, allowing just three hits and a walk. It was one of the best postseason performances of his career, and it propels the Dodgers into the NLDS.

For the first four innings of the game, Kershaw and Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff — who hit a first-inning home run off Kershaw in the NLCS two years ago — matched each other blow-for-blow. Kershaw struck out two in the top of the first; Woodruff struck out two in the bottom. Kershaw retired the Brewers in order in the top of the second; Woodruff did the same to the Dodgers in the bottom half of the inning, adding two more strikeouts. In the top of the third, Kershaw pitched around a leadoff single, retiring the next three batters; in the bottom of the third, Woodruff, too, pitched around a single, again striking out two. And in the fourth, both halves of the inning saw all three batters retired, with both pitchers recording two more strikeouts.

Everything was working for Kershaw, whose fastball averaged 91.8 mph over the course of his start. His slider, which he threw 48% of the time, was particularly devastating: It generated 32 swings on 45 pitches, with 20 of those swings being whiffs. Of his eventual 13 strikeouts, 10 were on the slider; nine of those 10 were swinging strikeouts. Woodruff, for his part, also had his pitches working for the first four innings, generating strikeouts on his changeup, slider, and, most often, his fastball, which averaged 96.9 mph.

But with Kershaw clearly in control, Woodruff would have to be perfect in order to match him, and in the bottom of the fifth, he allowed a small opening in the door that the Dodgers would eventually slam shut. After striking out Will Smith to start the inning, Woodruff allowed back-to-back singles to Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor. He induced a near-double play grounder to third from AJ Pollock, recording the out there, but Jedd Gyorko was unable to pick out the throw at first, keeping the inning alive and bringing Austin Barnes to the plate — the only Dodger to record a hit in the first four innings. Barnes shot another single to center, scoring Taylor and giving the Dodgers the only run they needed.

But the inning wasn’t yet complete; the Dodgers lineup was turning over, ready to face Woodruff for the third time. And Mookie Betts, who had struck out in his first two plate appearances, wasn’t about to let Woodruff get him again. A double slashed down the left-field line cleared the bases, making the lead 3-0 and knocking Woodruff from the game. Woodruff, who had to have been frustrated that a stellar outing had gone so far south, got himself tossed from the game on his way off the field, making his dissatisfaction at the home plate umpire his last act on a baseball field in 2020.

Kershaw, meanwhile, continued on. In the top of the sixth, he struck out the side. It took him only eight pitches to retire the side in the top of the seventh. And the minor threat represented by a walk to Luis Urías in the top of the eighth was promptly erased by a well-timed pickoff throw. On his next pitch, Kershaw finished his outing with his 13th strikeout of the night.

Brusdar Graterol closed out the ninth around a leadoff single, and so ended this NL Wild Card Series. The team that was heavily favored to win, the best team in baseball, moves on; the eighth-seed underdogs who backed their way into a postseason spot will go home. But even in a game that led a series to a predictable outcome — a game that featured none of the back-and-forth drama of some of the other games played yesterday — there was still wonder to be found. Watching a master of his craft at work is a joy, even when quiet. That’s what Clayton Kershaw treated us to last night: pure, consistent excellence of the kind he’s so often delivered over the past decade-plus. To see him do so in a postseason context, in a decisive game, is something to hold on to.

Kershaw and the Dodgers will move on to face the winner of today’s decisive game between the Padres and the Cardinals, whose Wild Card Series has unfolded in a rather different manner than theirs. The Dodgers will have the benefit of being well-rested, their starting pitching performances minimizing the number of high-stress innings their bullpen was forced into. They also have the benefit of being baseball’s deepest, most complete team. Both the Padres and the Cardinals have been put through the wringer during the first two games of their series; both clubs, though not without their strengths, have significant question marks, especially heading into a best-of-five series with no off days.

As the postseason advertising campaigns keep reminding us, anything can happen in October, and we’ve certainly seen some chaos this week. But the Dodgers, perhaps more than any other team, aren’t looking for chaos. They are looking for the predictable outcomes: for the best players to perform the best, the consistent starting pitchers to be consistent, for the strongest to come out on top. Last night, they got a Hall of Fame performance out of their Hall of Fame pitcher. Chaos, as powerful as it can be, couldn’t touch him.





RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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I’m really rooting for the Padres, because ugh cardinals, but also because Dodgers-Padres in the playoffs is going to be intense