After being passed over for the Game 1 start in the National League Division Series, then shutting out the Braves for eight innings in Game 2, Clayton Kershaw conceded there was a bit of added satisfaction in delivering a clutch performance.
On Thursday, Kershaw was back in his familiar role as ace, addressing the media before starting tonight's Game 1 of the NL Championship Series against the Brewers.
Kershaw is in his 11th Dodgers season and eighth postseason. He has an opt-out clause in his contract, and MLB Network insider Jon Heyman speculated on Fancredsports.com that the three-time Cy Young winner will exercise his right to be a free agent at the end of this up-and-down season in which he went on the disabled list with shoulder and back injuries while reinventing himself with a reliance on sliders.
Yet, Milwaukee's Ryan Braun said Kershaw is still a formidable foe.
"First and foremost, it's the way he competes," said Braun. "To me, he's the greatest pitcher of our generation and on the short list of greatest pitchers of all time. From the first pitch to the last, you know you're in for a battle when you face him. And obviously, the pure stuff is really good. People make a big deal about his fastball velocity being down, but he's probably a better pitcher than he was when he was younger and the velocity on his slider hasn't decreased at all.
"For me, he's as good and as tough as he's ever been, and it starts with his level of competitiveness, which is unique and special."
In an age of bullpenning, about to face a team that deploys the strategy, Kershaw is a throwback to old-school hardball.
"Yeah, I like pitching every fifth day," he said. "I like pitching deep into the games. Yeah, you know, ideally you'd like to finish them. That doesn't happen very much, but as a starting pitcher, you kind of take pride in innings and being out there."
That said, he's more understanding of the micromanaging that occurs in October.
"If it works, it's great. You know, I think -- I'm kind of a traditionalist when it comes to baseball," he said. "But when it comes down to the postseason, you just have to win games. These guys obviously had some success in the first series against the Rockies doing it, and they have a great bullpen. So there's no getting around that. It's probably tough to sustain for a full season. They've had a lot of guys make 30- or 25-plus starts or something like that. So it's not really sustainable for a full season, but definitely makes sense for a postseason."
The biggest challenge for Kershaw, as well as his pitching teammates, is containing Milwaukee MVP candidate Christian Yelich, who is 9-for-17 with two homers, a double and a 1.497 OPS against Kershaw in his career.
"Yeah. Really good hitter," Kershaw said. "Obviously he's had a tremendous second half. You know, I don't know -- who knows if this is what he could have done in Miami, just in a new ballpark, you know. But he's definitely swinging the bat very well. And I haven't -- honestly, I'm about to go look right now, so I don't know what he's changed since the last time I faced him or anything like that. But yeah, he's gotten some hits off me for sure, and [I'll] try not to let him do that tomorrow."
Kershaw compared the Brewers' offense to that of the Braves, with a balanced mix of hitters from both sides of the plate.
"Anytime that I've pitched in my career, it's always been a lot of righties," he said. "So you're right, they do have a lot of talented righties. So it's just like any good team, but [I'll] just try and get them out."
Ken Gurnick MLB.com