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Thursday, October 3, 2013
Dodgers' one-two punch undeniable

By Mark Saxon
ESPNLosAngeles.com

ATLANTA -- There was a time there, back in August and beyond, when team after team kept stumbling into the Los Angeles Dodgers' ambush. One night they would have to contend with Zack Greinke, the next it would be Clayton Kershaw. Or vice versa. They had nowhere to turn, neither right nor left.

It was right around then, probably not coincidentally, that the Dodgers were rattling off 42 wins in a span of 50 games to blaze through the NL West standings.

Clayton Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw was dominant in earning the first postseason victory of his career in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Braves.

If the Dodgers were to draw up a formula for world domination -- and it certainly appeared they did just that last winter, when they made Greinke the richest right-handed pitcher in baseball history among other pricey moves -- it would have been this: Force one team to have to contend with two Cy Young winners in punishing succession. Kershaw and Greinke haven't had back-to-back losing decisions to the same team all season. They haven't lost consecutive starts since late May.

It's as close to slump-proofing yourself as you can get. So, after Kershaw got a rare early lead and then discovered an unhittable slider to dismantle the Atlanta Braves in Thursday's 6-1 Game 1 win at Turner Field, it put this National League Division Series on a tee for the Dodgers. Kershaw is cruising toward his second Cy Young award in three seasons, but Greinke was really just as good after the All-Star break. His ERA was 1.85 to Kershaw's 1.59. He struck out 80 guys. Kershaw struck out 93. Greinke pitched 92 2/3 innings, Kershaw pitched 90 2/3.

For the record, that adds up to nearly 200 innings of absolute misery for opposing hitters.

Of course, momentum in these series can flip in the span of one inning, or even one pitch, so the Dodgers haven't guaranteed themselves anything yet. But they have executed their game plan to perfection, putting the Braves -- who looked far from calm and collected -- in a miserable plight. Even if they beat Greinke on Friday, they know Kershaw's looming in Game 5. So, in a way the Dodgers have forced Atlanta to win three straight games, two of them in L.A.

"When you have those two guys on the top, I don't care who's on the other side, they could be the National League All-Star team, we're confident," said Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

Thursday was Kershaw's first postseason start since he was 21 years old and walking the house against the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009. He's not that guy anymore. You can go into a lot of detail about what has changed about Kershaw -- he picked up the slider, learned to pitch more efficiently, continued to strive for excellence -- but all you really know is this: He's doing what Sandy Koufax once did.

Thursday was Kershaw's first postseason win, which will only cement the consensus -- and it's laughable to argue otherwise at this point -- that Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball. He struck out nine of the last 11 batters he faced and, had he not struggled with his fastball command, and had the Braves not driven up his pitch count early, this might have been a performance for the ages.

Not to worry. If Kershaw has his way, he'll get about six more starts this month to show America just how good he has become. This was stage one and Kershaw was in an uncharacteristically reflective mood afterward.

"This one definitely has a special meaning to me, for sure," Kershaw said.

It has become trite to compare Kershaw and Greinke to Koufax and Don Drysdale and, if they continue to do what they've been doing for the past three months over the next five or six years, those parallels will be more than apt. But, right now, the Dodgers would settle for three more weeks of the kind of dominance they saw from Kershaw on Thursday and the kind they expect from Greinke on Friday. Greinke has only made three postseason starts, back in 2011 for the Milwaukee Brewers, and it didn't go well at all. Greinke had a 6.48 ERA that October.

Somebody asked him Thursday whether that experience will prove valuable to him when he gets on the mound Friday evening.

"A little bit valuable," he said. "Definitely not nothing, but probably not a big amount either."

Kershaw made a pretty good argument Thursday that a pitcher's recent form might be a better predictor than his previous October numbers and, right now, Greinke is on a roll few pitchers other than the one in his own clubhouse can match.

Kershaw can overwhelm hitters with pure stuff. His fastball is a tick faster than Greinke's, his breaking ball a tad more devastating. Greinke paints with a finer brush, but he paints nonetheless.

"When he gets the ball to the right spots, he's pretty much unhittable," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "We've got to get it to the right spots."

The Braves would agree about spots. Already, they seem to have gotten themselves in a tight one.