PHOENIX — OK, let’s end the silliness of this regular season now, bypass the extra round of the 16-team postseason, and just put the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2020 World Series.
With the dazzling performance three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw put on Sunday in his delayed season debut, it’s almost unimaginable that anyone can stop them, at least in the National League.
Kershaw, scratched from the Dodgers’ season opener with back stiffness, was nothing short of brilliant in their 3-0 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks. He gave up just three hits in 5⅔ shutout innings – with only one ball getting hit hard – with no walks and six strikeouts.
He threw his 90-93 mph fastball with absolute precision, hitting every quadrant of the strike-zone, 57 of his 81 pitches resulting in strikes. Twenty of those fastballs clocked at 92-mph or faster.
The significance of that velocity?
He threw only 19 pitches all of last season at 92-mph or faster in his 178⅓ innings.
He had his 84-89 mph slider baffling hitters with the depth of the pitch.
He mixed in nine curveballs with perfection.
Yeah, the big fella is feeling good, and when he’s feeling good, the Dodgers are feeling, well, almost invincible.
Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw made his season debut Sunday against the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Photo: Joe Camporeale, USA TODAY Sports)
“It was fun,’’ Kershaw said. “I missed it. I didn’t know how long it would take my back to get better, but it bounced back pretty quick. It felt good. It was awesome to be out there…
“There was relief, thankfulness, and just relief to get the first one behind me. I’m just thankful for the arm feeling as good as it did today. It was the first time pitching in, gosh, eight to nine months, in a game that actually mattered.
Oh, sure, it took a little getting used to being on the mound for the first time in a real game since last October. When he struck out Ketel Marte to open the game, he walked around the mound, anticipating the ball to be thrown around the infield. Oops. Those days are over. Catcher Austin Barnes merely held onto the ball waiting for Kershaw.
Welcome back, Kersh! pic.twitter.com/c7VxascpEk
When he danced off the mound after the 1-2-3 first inning, he couldn’t help but break into a huge grin watching his teammates, with fellow pitcher Ross Stripling actually sitting in the stands, clapping as if he were a fan.
“There was definitely some things you have to get used to,’’ Kershaw said. “Just to start the day, you eat your food in the hotel, take a bus, and I like to get here early. There are so many things.
“Everyone is dealing with it, and we still get to play baseball, so we’ll get used to it and will continue to get used to it as the season goes.’’
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Certainly, he can get used to that increased velocity, too, but with the brilliant control he showed Sunday, which left Dodgers manager Dave Roberts almost in awe, Kershaw didn’t even need the extra uptick.
“I thought it might be playing up a little bit compared to last year,’’ Kershaw said. “That’s what I expected. That’s what it should look like.’’
Really, to tell you the truth, the Dodgers say it’s exactly what they expected when Kershaw took the mound. They saw his dominance in spring training before it was shut down in March, saw it in summer camp, and saw it in all of his side sessions.
“It’s great, it’s a big boost for all of us,’’ Roberts said. “There was a different vibe in the clubhouse this morning. To see No. 22 take the mound, we’ve all been anticipating this.’’
They’ve also been eagerly awaiting that the World Series title since 1988, too. With this kind of assembled talent, no wonder the Dodgers are taking great measures to assure there is no COVID-19 outbreak on their team, with everyone wearing masks on the bench and making sure that those who aren’t playing or in the lineup are not even in the dugout.
The 7-3 Dodgers are outscoring the opposition by a major-league leading 30 runs. They watched $365 million man Mookie Betts hit his first two homers of the season in Phoenix, though he did leave Sunday's game in the seventh inning with an inflamed left middle finger. And Cody Bellinger, the defending NL MVP, broke out of his early-season slump with a two-run homer Sunday, and had another hard-hit ball go to the warning track in right field.
Bellinger, benched Saturday with his .139 batting average (5-for-36), and only one extra-base hit with two RBI, made sure he won’t be sitting again anytime soon.
“It felt great,’’ Bellinger said. “I never really felt bad, it’s just a matter of missing pitches. It’s just nice to see results in a game, sometimes it doesn’t always translate.’’
Really, the only discouraging news for the Dodgers during the series, in which they outscored the Diamondbacks 23-10, was the swelling in Betts’ finger. He homered in the fifth inning, played two innings of defense, and then departed when Edwin Rios pinch-hit for him in the seventh. He underwent X-rays that were negative, Roberts said, and his return is day-to-day.
Certainly, after winning seven consecutive NL West titles, it’s no surprise the Dodgers are sitting in first place in August, but in a short season, well, anything can happen.
Despite all the uniqueness of this season – COVID-19 tests, week-long postponements, opt-outs without telling team officials – it still takes talent and elite performances to be among baseball’s Sweet 16 in October.
This edition of the Dodgers is as good as any of their predecessors, if not better.
“To be quite honest,’’ Roberts said, “I don’t even think we’ve clicked on all cylinders yet.’’
Let that sink in.
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