WASHINGTON — Hardly at his best, as usual when it comes to October, Clayton Kershaw still managed to do just enough to earn a rare postseason victory.
Backed by early homers from rookie sensation Corey Seager and Justin Turner off Max Scherzer in a matchup of Cy Young Award winners that promised more than it delivered, Kershaw worked around eight hits with the help of seven strikeouts Friday to help the Los Angeles Dodgers edge the Washington Nationals 4-3 in Game 1 of their NL Division Series.
"It was a grind. A lot of guys on base all the time. Definitely wasn't easy," Kershaw said. "As close as you can bend without breaking, I guess."
His work done, Kershaw was able to relax in the dugout, chewing gum and blowing bubbles while watching relievers Joe Blanton, Grant Dayton, Pedro Baez and Kenley Jansen combine to one hit over four scoreless innings. Jansen got his first five-out save since April 13.
Game 2 in the best-of-five matchup is Saturday at Washington.
In his five innings against the NL East champs, Kershaw allowed three runs, which might not sound like an exorbitant total, but an opponent scored that many only once in the lefty's preceding 16 starts. He was hardly efficient, needing 101 pitches and plenty of boo-inducing mound visits from catcher Yasmani Grandal. Still, Kershaw improved his career record in the playoffs to 3-6 even though his ERA rose to 4.65.
Those numbers are a far cry from his regular-season marks of 126-60, 2.37 ERA and three Cy Young Awards. Maybe, just maybe, Kershaw's arm felt stronger this time because he sat out more than two months with a bad back before returning to the NL West winners in September.
"It feels good to win, and it feels good to win in this situation," Kershaw said. "If I had pitched seven shutout innings and we lost, it's a different feeling. At this time of year, you kind of just throw the stats out the window and you just win the game."
He was staked to a 4-0 lead thanks mainly to Seager and Turner, before slowly giving back most of that margin.
Kershaw allowed only one stolen base during 149 innings in the regular season, then allowed two on a single pitch in the third Friday, when Bryce Harper (who had doubled) and Jayson Werth (who had walked) moved up. That became big when Anthony Rendon ripped a single to left field on a slider that didn't really slide, bringing both runners home and getting Washington to 4-2.
Trea Turner's sacrifice fly in the fourth cut LA's lead to a run.
Like Washington's Turner, LA's Seager is a rookie who hasn't played like one all year long, so why start now?
On the first pitch he saw from Scherzer, Seager turned on a 97 mph fastball and hit it to the deepest part of Nationals Park, beyond the 402-foot sign in center field, for a 1-0 lead.
Scherzer plunked the next batter, Justin Turner, on the left arm. For whatever reason, the 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner for Detroit — and a 20-game winner who's a leading contender for the NL honor this year — never truly settled in.
The Dodgers made it 4-0 in the third on Chase Utley's RBI single, then Justin Turner's two-run shot on a 77 mph curveball. The ball sailed over the head of Werth, who jumped in vain to try to make a grab, then slammed his glove against the left-field wall.
Homers have been Scherzer's biggest problem the past two seasons: He allowed 27 in 2015, and a major league-high 31 in 2016.
"I made some mistakes, and they cost me," Scherzer said. "I take ownership of that, and I'm accountable for that."
Kershaw, meanwhile, began perfectly as can be, striking out the side in the first: Trea Turner whiffed on a 90 mph slider, Harper swung through a 96 mph fastball, and Werth nearly tumbled over while flailing at a 75 mph curve.
Things got busier from there for LA's ace, though. Kershaw left the bases loaded in the second, and stranded two runners in both the third and fifth — striking out Danny Espinosa along the way each time.
"We had him on the ropes a couple times," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said, "and, you know, the big hit just escaped us."
In the seventh, Nationals 2B Daniel Murphy — who hadn't started since Sept. 17 because of a strained glute muscle — walked, then was thrown out trying to steal second with Baez on the mound. Baker said it was Murphy's decision to run there. "There's two choices on that," Murphy said. "Either be safe or don't run."
Nationals: RHP Stephen Strasburg threw a bullpen hours before Game 1 — his first time on a mound since he hurt his right elbow a month ago. He was ruled out for the NLDS, but the Nationals hope he could return if the team advances. ... All-Star C Wilson Ramos, out for the season with a torn knee ligament, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
In Game 2, RHP Tanner Roark (16-10, 2.83 ERA) starts for the Nationals, taking the assignment that likely would have gone to Strasburg if he were healthy. LHP Rich Hill (3-2, 1.84 ERA in six starts after a trade from Oakland) will pitch for the Dodgers. He was let go from Washington's Triple-A Syracuse affiliate last year.