2017 World Series: Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, Astros' Justin Verlander each eye first title

By Roger Rubin, The Sports Xchange  |  Oct. 23, 2017 at 10:26 AM
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All eyes will be on the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and the Houston Astros' Justin Verlander as the World Series unfolds this week.

That is not unusual. They stand among the best pitchers of a generation. Every start is a chance to see an artist at work. And in Games 1 and 2 in Los Angeles they will be attempting to craft masterpieces under the biggest of spotlights.

Still, there is something more to the competition because each has not won a World Series. Yes, Kershaw has an MVP award, three Cy Young Awards and a no-hitter. And Verlander has an MVP, a Cy Young and a pair of no-hitters. But when each has pitched in his most meaningful games, there have been failures.

Because of Kershaw's slightly higher profile and his scheduled Game 1 start against Houston and Dallas Keuchel, he will get scrutinized most.

The 29-year-old left-hander with the devastating breaking pitch is 144-64 with a 2.36 ERA in the regular season. In the postseason, he is 6-7 with a 4.40 ERA.

Included on Kershaw's October resume are some notable defeats, including Game 6 to the Chicago Cubs in last season's National League Championship Series and two losses each to the St. Louis Cardinals in the '13 NLCS and the '14 NL Division Series.

Kershaw is finally pitching in a World Series after throwing six innings of one-run ball Thursday in the pennant-clincher against the Cubs. In three playoff starts this October, he is 2-0 with a good-by-most-standards 3.63 ERA, though he has allowed six home runs.

"Who knows how many times I'm going to get to go to the World Series?" he said. "I know more than anybody how hard it is to get there. Winning the World Series is really all that we play this game for. All the individual stuff is great, but at the end of the day, I just want to win a World Series."

Verlander gets everyone's attention on Wednesday when he starts Game 2 against the Dodgers and Rich Hill.

The right-hander who still dials his fastball up to 98 mph (but no longer 100) has been a better big-game pitcher. He has been to the postseason six times. In 17 games (16 starts) in an American League Division Series or AL Championship Series, he is 11-2 with a 2.42 ERA. Twice he has reached the World Series, and that's where it all changes for him: In three starts, he is 0-3 with a 7.20 ERA.

The 34-year-old is having what looks like a renaissance since he was dealt from Detroit to Houston just before the Aug. 31 deadline, going 9-0 with a 1.22 ERA in nine appearances since the deal.

Too many forget he had more first-place votes for the 2016 AL Cy Young Award than winner Rick Porcello of the Red Sox or how, after discovering a mechanical glitch in his delivery and fixing it, he was 5-1 with a 2.06 ERA in the seven games before the trade this summer.

Still, he goes into this next start after earning wins in all three starts and one relief appearance this postseason and earning ALCS MVP honors. He threw 16 often-gritty innings and allowed just one run against the New York Yankees.

"It's not easy to get here, and I don't take any of this for granted," Verlander said Saturday. "This is what we play for. These are the experiences that you remember at the end of your career, when you look back: winning these games, playing the World Series, hopefully winning the World Series."

As the World Series plays out, one of these two will get to realize what he has hoped for all of a career. The funny thing is that whichever one does, it will be finally because he is in the right position to do so -- whether or not he is the best pitcher in the series.

For Kershaw, the deal always was the same. He was asked to be the savior, pitched on short rest, got called on when the pressure was highest and had to throw well over 100 high-stress pitches. He no longer has to be that.

The offense for the 104-win Dodgers is powerful. After outscoring foes by 190 runs in the regular season, Los Angeles upped its average from 4.75 runs per game in the first 162 to 6.0 in the playoffs. And the Dodgers have a lights-out bullpen with Brandon Morrow and closer Kenley Jansen at the back end.

"We put undue pressure on a young man, on a ballclub that didn't have near what this one has," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said of Kershaw.

In each time Verlander reached the World Series with the Tigers, in 2006 and 2012, a fast ALCS left Detroit waiting many days for the start. He first pitched after nine days off in his initial World Series and seven days off the second.

Houston is sharp after ousting the Yankees in Game 7 on Saturday. And the 101-win club has the best offense in baseball, having averaged 5.5 runs per game this season with three players -- Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer -- who may finish in the top 10 of NL MVP voting.

"This team as a whole can win baseball games in so many different ways, and we showed so many of those different aspects in just this series," Verlander said after Game 7. "We showed we can win with pitching, hitting, defense. We can win with baserunning. There's just so many facets to this team that -- you don't win 100-plus games by accident throughout the season."

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