Over the last eight seasons, the Dodgers are used to going deep into the MLB playoffs.
Over that span, Los Angeles reached the Division series seven times, the championship series four times, and the World Series two times.
So winning a Wild Card series might not be cause for a raucous celebration, but in the unusual and uncharted territory that is the year 2020, perhaps every accomplishment should be revered. Especially for Clayton Kershaw.
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Kershaw struck out a playoff-high 13 batters, and the Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Brewers on back-to-back nights, clinching the best of three Wild Card series and advancing to the National League Division Series next week in Texas.
"It's a good first step for sure," said Kershaw matter of factly. "I'm going to try and do the same thing the next time out against either the Cardinals or Padres and just keep moving forward."
The Dodgers did it on Thursday night in ho-hum fashion: Clayton Kershaw dazzled over eight scoreless innings, Mookie Betts knocked in two runs, and the Dodgers bullpen closed the door.
"The Dodgers have been doing this for years now and I'm happy to be on board," said Betts after the victory. "I'm just here to plug and play."
Kershaw threw the Brewers a steady diet of breaking balls in Game 2. The curveball and slider were sharp, and the four-seam fastball complimented them perfectly. Kershaw allowed no runs on three hits with 13 strikeouts. All 13 strikeouts came on either the curveball or slider.
"The slider is obviously an important pitch for me," said Kershaw, who struck out 10 of the 13 with the slider. "You know when you're getting good depth on it. Tonight I was getting some swings and misses on it."
Perhaps Kershaw exorcised some of the postseason demons that have tormented him over the course of his illustrious Hall of Fame career. Or perhaps he did what he typically does when the Dodgers have a lead in a playoff series and Kershaw takes the mound with an opportunity to close out the series.
In three such situations, Kershaw is a perfect 2-0 with 0.45 ERA and 24 strikeouts. However, when the Dodgers don't have a cushy lead in an elimination game, Kershaw is 1-4 with a blown save and an ERA over 5.00.
Last postseason, Kershaw famously allowed back-to-back homers for the first time in his career in Game 5 of the NLDS, blowing a two-run lead in a game the Dodgers would eventually lose to the Washington Nationals in extra innings.
This postseason, he will be relied upon heavily, after David Price opted out before the season, Kenta Maeda was traded to Minnesota, and starters Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill left to the American League in free agency.
"I think that there's always going to be talk about that," said Dodgers' manager Dave Roberts when asked about Kershaw's troubled playoff past. "Clayton is just focused on right now and what he can control. I'm sure he'll enjoy tonight, but he's already getting ready for that start in the DS [Division Series]."
Kershaw is having somewhat of a resurgence in 2020, but the competition will only get better as the Dodgers advance, and in turn, Kershaw will need to be better as well in order to re-write his postseason narrative.
"Maybe in year's past, I've been known to be pretty stubborn," said Kershaw when asked about his past postseason experiences. "That might not be the best idea at times."
Brewers' starter Brandon Woodruff matched Kershaw zero for zero through five innings in Game 2, but a bad bounce turned out to be disastrous for Milwaukee on the night their 2020 season came to a sudden end.
"He was tough all night," said Barnes of Woodruff. "He has a good fastball obviously. He pitched well tonight and we were able to scratch some runs across. Mookie gave us some breathing room with that hit, that was a big inning for us."
Woodruff should have escaped the fifth on an inning-ending double play, but third baseman Luis Urias made a low throw to first base that was bobbled by former Dodger Jedd Gyorko, allowing the inning to continue.
One batter later, Austin Barnes broke up the scoreless shutout with a two-out RBI single up the middle that gave the Dodgers a 1-0 lead. Mookie Betts, who Barnes has admitted has helped him with his swing this season, followed with a two-run double to give the Dodgers a 3-0 lead.
"Barnsey [Austin Barnes] came through clutch with a big knock to make it easy on me. I was just looking for a good pitch to drive," said Betts of the three-run fifth inning.
Turns out, three runs would be all Kershaw would need on this night.
"Kersh was just determined tonight," said Roberts. "That was just an outstanding performance."
Los Angeles had the best record in baseball this season. They hit the most home runs, and their pitching staff had the lowest ERA in all of baseball. Let's be honest, they were supposed to move on against a Brewers team that became the first in MLB history to reach the postseason with a losing record.
"They're a big league ball club," said Betts. "They weren't just going to fold. We took them seriously."
However, the other MLB team in the postseason with a losing record—the Houston Astros—swept the Minnesota Twins in their Wild Card matchup. With an absurd best-of-three series for all 16 teams in the MLB Playoffs, and the best closer in baseball in Josh Hader lurking in the Brewers' bullpen, nothing was guaranteed.
"Obviously, we're pumped," said a muted Barnes after the game. "But a three-game series is weird. Anything can happen in a short series. It's weird playing meaningful games in a three-game series."
As Kershaw celebrated the series-clinching victory with his teammates at Dodger Stadium on Thursday night, there certainly was no evidence that he was bogged down with the burden of his postseason past.
"It kind of feels like a postseason victory and it also kind of feels like now the postseason is starting," said Kershaw after the game. "Either way we get to move on and keep playing."
Kershaw is now in his 10th postseason, and earned his 10th postseason win, but in order for the memories of painful playoff pasts to completely melt away, he will have to do this on the game's grandest stage: the World Series.
The Dodgers now get four days of rest before they will face either the St. Louis Cardinals or the San Diego Padres at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
"If you would have told me the first time I would pitch in Texas is in the Division Series, and not against the Rangers, I wouldn't have believed you," said Kershaw who was born and raised in Dallas and lives just ten minutes from the stadium.