ATLANTA — The signage around Turner Field identified this as “Chop-tober.” But it looked an awful lot like July, when the Dodgers could do no wrong.
All the elements you remember were there. Yasiel Puig sparked the offense. Clayton Kershaw dominated hitters — well, that could be any month. Adrian Gonzalez’s contributions went largely unnoticed. And the Dodgers won on the road, getting a leg up in their National League Division Series on Thursday night as they beat the Atlanta Braves, 6-1, in Game 1.
Kershaw was exactly what the Dodgers hoped he would be as the Game 1 starter, holding the Braves to three hits in seven innings.
“It definitely took a while for his offspeed to catch up. His fastball command wasn’t the best either,” Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said. “They were really battling and got his pitch count up there. … In the last few innings, his slider just became unhittable. He just put the hammer down for us in those last few innings.”
The combination of the National League leader in strikeouts (Kershaw) and the league’s most strikeout-prone team (the Braves tied the New York Mets) produced 12 strikeouts, including six consecutive batters in the middle innings.
Kershaw’s 12 strikeouts are the second-most in a postseason game by a Dodgers pitcher since the team moved to Los Angeles, trailing only Sandy Koufax’s 15 in Game 1 of the 1963 World Series.
Kershaw struck out nine of his final 11 batters before handing the ball to the bullpen. He threw 124 pitches.
“I thought offensively we had a nice game plan against Kershaw. We just couldn’t get the base hit,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of driving Kershaw’s pitch count to 77 through four innings and 91 through five. “We were patient at the plate. We were getting the pitch count up. He never gave us an opportunity.
“When you look up and you see 77 pitches in the fourth inning, you feel you have a chance. But he is what he is. He turned it up the last three or four innings and we didn’t really get good swings at him.”
For all the concerns that Puig’s rough edges might lead to a costly mistake in a playoff game, it was the Braves who cracked early, with Puig forcing the issue. He challenged Braves center fielder Jason Heyward’s arm twice in the second inning, leading to two runs.
After bouncing a single through the middle with one out, Puig charged from first to third on Juan Uribe’s single to center.
When Skip Schumaker followed with a fly ball to Heyward, Puig tagged up and challenged him again, scoring when Heyward’s strong throw was well off the mark — allowing Uribe to advance to second.
Uribe scored when A.J. Ellis dropped a two-out double into left field, Braves outfielder Evan Gattis making a misguided dive for the ball.
“Exactly what he did today, that’s what we expected from him,” Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said of Puig’s aggressiveness. “He’s a guy people like to talk about his mistakes. Nobody’s talking bad about him after today.
“He’s going to give us great energy, great enthusiasm, great at-bats.”
Gattis made another blunder in the bottom of the inning, getting doubled off first on a popup to Puig in shallow right field.
“I think the guys were just a little overamped,” Fredi Gonzalez said of the Braves’ mistakes early. “Little things like that (Heyward’s throw home and Gattis’ baserunning mistake). Guys were excited. And rightfully so. It was a big game.”
An inning later, Adrian Gonzalez hit a two-run home run and the Dodgers made it 5-0 in the fourth on another double by A.J. Ellis and an RBI single by Mark Ellis.
Braves starter Kris Medlen allowed just one unearned run in two starts against the Dodgers earlier this year, but he was out of the game in the fifth inning Thursday.
“When you get Kershaw out there and keep giving him space … you put a lot of pressure on the other team,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said.