Hyun-Jin Ryu gives Dodgers' rotation another dominant force

LOS ANGELES -- For most of two afternoons at Dodger Stadium, the conversation centered on the man who wasn't getting the ball in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. Clayton Kershaw, a walking Hall of Famer pitching on the edges of his prime, had been the guy to get the ball for Game 1 for the Los Angeles Dodgers every time they played into October over the past five years.

But not this time.

Instead, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts chose Hyun-Jin Ryu, a circumstance that pushed Kershaw back to the second game of the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves. Roberts rationalized the decision by outlining its logistical components, noting that it would put both Ryu and Kershaw on five days' rest while still preserving Kershaw's opportunity to pitch in a potential deciding Game 5.

Many others saw it as a sign that Kershaw was no longer the Dodgers' clear ace, at least not to the extent he had been.

But there was another reason, one that mostly went unnoticed: Ryu is very, very good.

On Thursday night, amid a 6-0 victory over the young Braves, Ryu proved it on a national stage, twirling seven shutout innings while allowing only four baserunners and hardly breaking a sweat. The 31-year-old left-hander finished the regular season with a 1.97 ERA and has been at his best lately, allowing only one run over his past 26 innings.

"It's unfortunate that he got hurt in Arizona," Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said of Ryu, "or you might be talking about him in the Cy Young race."

The injury Turner referenced -- a torn groin that kept Ryu out for more than three months -- was only the latest in a series of debilitating setbacks, most of which kept Ryu off a stage like this. He underwent shoulder surgery in May 2015, returned in July 2016, made one awful start, then went back on the shelf again, ultimately succumbing to elbow surgery.

Ryu was finally able to stay healthy in 2017, but he pitched poorly in the regular-season finale, was beaten out by Alex Wood for the fourth and final postseason rotation spot and could only watch while the Dodgers played all the way into Game 7 of the World Series.

Ryu called Thursday, his first postseason start in four years, "the fruition of all that hard work that I put in."

He has now thrown seven scoreless innings in the postseason on two occasions, a feat not even Kershaw could match. The only other Dodgers to do so are Sandy Koufax, Jerry Reuss and Orel Hershiser.

"It's always nice to be compared to the Dodger legends like that," Ryu said through an interpreter. "I don't necessarily prepare the game to beat those kinds of records, but I always try my best."

Backed by an early lead -- thanks to a leadoff home run by Joc Pederson and a second-inning, three-run homer by Max Muncy -- Ryu faced one over the minimum through the first four innings and hardly encountered trouble thereafter.

He surrendered consecutive two-out singles in the fifth, but retired the next batter, pinch hitter Kurt Suzuki, on the first pitch. He saw the leadoff batter reach on an error by Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado in the sixth, but didn't let it faze him. He came out for the seventh at 86 pitches and easily worked around a two-out hit. And he even added a single, his fourth hit in a span of seven at-bats.

"He's had a tough few years," Pederson said. "To come out here and do what he did is special."

Ryu was mostly solid in his 2017 return, contributing a 3.77 ERA in 126 ⅔ innings. But a normal offseason helped him to better prepare for this season. And when he returned from his groin injury in the middle of August, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts found him to be in "great shape."

"He picked up right where he left off," Roberts said. "We were counting on him this year, and he's done everything we had hoped."

Kershaw has the prestige and Walker Buehler has earned the distinction as the Dodgers' ace-in-waiting, but Ryu has been just as good, if not better, than both of them, a sign of just how dangerous this team can be. The Dodgers have won five in a row and have outscored their opponents 39-9 during that stretch.

Roberts believes they're at their best at the perfect time.

"We're playing really good baseball," Roberts said. "All of September, I think we've kind of come together -- offensively, defensively, starting pitching, the pen -- and this is when you want to play your best baseball. We have a lot of good players. We're healthy. And this is a very focused and determined group."

The first 11 questions Kershaw answered in the interview room on Thursday afternoon centered on not starting a postseason opener for the first time since 2009. He dismissed calling it "a gut punch" and didn't provide any real hints that the decision bothered him, even if it did.

"Hyun-Jin has had a great season," Kershaw said at one point. "He's pitched really well for us."

When the night was finished, Roberts was asked how he felt about his decision in hindsight.

"I don't think I need to answer that," he said. "I think we feel pretty good about it."