ATLANTA -- Clayton Kershaw admittedly did not have his best fastball on Thursday night in Game 1 of the National League Division Series -- but that didn't stop the Dodgers' ace from proving why he is the NL Cy Young Award favorite.
Kershaw overcame some brief mid-inning command problems en route to turning in a record-setting performance while the Dodgers cruised to a series-opening 6-1 victory over the Braves at Turner Field. The southpaw credited his catcher, A.J. Ellis, with first picking up on the fastball issues and changing the way he called the rest of the game on the fly.
"He recognized pretty quickly that my fastball wasn't where it needed to be tonight," Kershaw said of Ellis. "And he adjusted the game plan accordingly, and it worked out."
Unable to pound the strike zone effectively with his fastball, Kershaw's pitch count climbed to 77 after just four innings. At that point, the southpaw had just four strikeouts and had already issued two walks and uncorked a wild pitch.
Turning heavily to the breaking ball as the game wore on, Kershaw went on to strike out 12 batters over seven strong innings, limiting the Braves to just one run. In striking out nine of the final 11 hitters he faced -- including striking out the side in the fifth and seven innings -- Kershaw notched the most strikeouts by a Dodgers pitcher in postseason play since Sandy Koufax notched 15 in Game 1 of the 1963 World Series.
"His fastball just didn't have the pinpoint location that it usually has. He made more mistakes over the middle than he normally would," Ellis said. "Fortunately, he didn't pay for them, but they got a lot of foul balls and drove his pitch count up early. But then, Kersh being Kersh, he kind of just put the hammer down, and it was lights-out from there. For him to get through those last few innings, especially with all those strikeouts, was just huge for us."
As for setting the Dodgers' NLDS record for strikeouts in a game, Kershaw again deferred much of the credit to his batterymate.
"Strikeouts just kind of happen, it's not something I'm trying to do," Kershaw said. "I'm just trying to get outs as fast as possible. With A.J. calling some more offspeed pitches, sliders were getting some swings and misses tonight, which was good."
In the other dugout, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was confident his club was on the verge of breaking through against Kershaw after watching his club make the lefty work so much in the early innings. Trailing, 5-0, in the bottom of the fourth, Atlanta pushed across its first -- and only -- run of the night on a Chris Johnson two-out, run-scoring single that still left the Braves with runners on the corners.
Unfortunately for the Braves, that would be the last hit allowed by Kershaw.
"When you look up and you see 77 pitches in the fourth inning, you feel like you have a chance," Gonzalez said. "But he is what he is. He turned it up the next three or four innings, and we didn't really get any other good swings at him."
Following Johnson's RBI base knock, Kershaw dialed up a strikeout of Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, setting off his stretch of retiring 10 of the final 11 hitters he faced. Kershaw's lone misstep during that span was issuing a leadoff walk to catcher Brian McCann to start the seventh inning before striking out each of the next three hitters. Ellis credited that fourth-inning strikeout of Simmons as the turning point for Kershaw.
"Johnson had just gotten that hit to score the first run for them -- that's a lot of momentum," Ellis said. "Then [Kershaw] throws an unhittable 3-2 slider, struck him out. It kind of reminded me that maybe we needed to change our pattern up a little bit. We pitched a little backwards the rest of the game, using more offspeed, and the slider was just dominant the rest of the way."
For Kershaw, Thursday's victory marked the first postseason win in his young career, though he hopes to notch a few more in the 2013 postseason. For now, the 25-year-old will savor the Game 1 victory -- one that he said may just be the highlight of his baseball career up to this point.
"It's up there," Kershaw said. "It's probably it might be the best, just because it's my first postseason win. I hadn't ever won a game. We got to win in one other game that I pitched that I started in, but this one definitely has special meaning to me for sure."