Clayton Kershaw was hardly at his best.
Nothing new when it comes to October.
He allowed eight hits and three runs. He needed 101 pitches just to make it through five innings. His career post-season ERA even rose a bit, up to 4.65.
Didn't matter a bit to the lefty. Only this did: He earned a rare playoff 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 helped the Los Angeles Dodgers edge the Washington Nationals 4-3 Friday 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 give up one hit over four scoreless innings. Jansen got his first five-out save since April.
"Whatever we've got to do to win, right? Those guys are up to the challenge," Seager said about LA's bullpen. "And they've been up to it all year."
Game 2 in the best-of-five matchup is Saturday at Washington.
Facing the NL East champs, Kershaw's three runs might not sound like an exorbitant total, but an opponent scored that many only once in the lefty's preceding 16 starts. And there was a stop-and-start feel to the evening, because of plenty of boo-inducing mound visits from catcher Yasmani Grandal.
"I wanted to be sure on the signs. We were trying to change 'em up pretty often," said Kershaw, who improved to 3-6 in the playoffs , a far cry from his regular-season record of 126-60 with a 2.37 ERA and three Cy Young Awards. "It was mainly that I had so many guys on second base."
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."
There was also a baserunning blunder by NL MVP contender Daniel Murphy in the seventh inning.
Murphy, who hadn't started a game since Sept. 17 because of a strained glute muscle, reached when Baez walked him, but then was thrown out trying to steal second. Baker said it was Murphy's decision to run there and acknowledged being surprised by the attempt.
"There's two choices on that," Murphy said. "Either be safe or don't run."
In all, Washington went 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position.
That meant the Nationals repeatedly let Kershaw off the hook. He sat out more than two months with a bad back before returning to the NL West winners in September and hadn't thrown more than 91 pitches since coming back.
So what if he struggled?
"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, 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 has not played like one all year long.
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 centre 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 honour 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."