Hyun-Jin Ryu made sure to end any discussions and drama surrounding the Los Angeles Dodgers’ decision to start him over Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves Thursday evening. The 31-year-old pitched seven shutout innings where he allowed just four hits and struck out eight batters. But before the game, there was the controversy surrounding starting him.

Clayton Kershaw is the guy everyone expected to take the mound. He is the game’s best pitcher of this generation and the best statistical starter since the beginning of the live-ball era (1920), so it’s the natural choice, even with his regression in 2018. Kershaw had taken Game 1 in the NLDS for five straight Octobers from 2013-2017, including a Game 1 in the NLCS and World Series from 2017 and NLCS from 2009. The 30-year-old has the pedigree to make it a foregone conclusion.

But the Dodgers went against the popular choice and went with Ryu. It was shocking when announced, but understandable and smart. However, with Kershaw’s competitiveness, you can bet he was mad for not getting the game ball. When asked about the discussion he had with manager Dave Roberts, he did not give any specifics.

“It wasn’t really an agree or disagree type thing, I guess,” he said. “They had their reasons, and I accepted them.”

But the numbers say it was the right choice. We may not know the full details of the decision, but it’s fair to assume it had to do with Kershaw being been much better with the more rest he gets. It was choosing to give both pitchers one extra day of rest vs. Ryu on two extra days and Kershaw on regular rest. On a regular four days of rest the southpaw has a 3.21 ERA, on five days of rest, 2.56 ERA, and on 6+ days, 2.25 ERA.

But, at the same time, we cannot ignore Ryu’s excellence this season when he’s been healthy. It’s just been overshadowed by Clayton Kershaw’s name and Walker Buehler’s brilliance, but he earned this nod. Before tearing his groin, the Dodgers’ lefty had a 2.12 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in 29.2 innings. And after missing around three months, Ryu comes back and posts a 1.88 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in nine starts. On the season, the pending free agent had a 1.97 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and 89 strikeouts in 82.1 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.”

He’s just been that good, and should we really be surprised that he rose to the occasion? Ryu has a sparkling 1.15 home ERA in 54.2 regular season innings and has proven over the years (when healthy) that he can pitch under the national spotlight in the most significant moments.

After a shaky playoff debut against the Braves in the Dodgers’ 2013 NLDS matchup, he rebounded in Game 3 of the 2013 NLCS with the Dodgers’ down 2-0 in the series to the St. Louis Cardinals. He proceeded to throw seven shutout innings with only two runs of support while he was in the game. And the next season, he went on the road into a hostile Busch Stadium environment during the playoffs in St. Louis and threw six innings of one-run ball.

So, including Thursday, Hyun-Jin Ryu has a 1.96 ERA in 23 playoff innings and has allowed just one run in his last 26 innings (0.35 ERA); 26 innings of must-win baseball in 2018 just to make the playoffs. As good as Walker Buehler was down-the-stretch, Ryu was arguably better. If Buehler is clutch, Ryu definitely is.

In his last two matchups against the Arizona Diamondbacks (August 31) and the Colorado Rockies (September 17), the Dodgers needed to win both games because they were chasing either team in the standings as the team they faced each squad sat in first-place during each respective matchup. The lefty allowed two runs, eight hits, and zero walks in 14 innings. And, under the bright lights of Sunday Night Baseball on the road, Ryu threw 11.2 innings and allowed zero runs, three hits, and struck out 13 hitters including seven innings of one-hit ball and eight strikeouts in one of the performances.

He’s quietly turning into a ‘Big-Game Pitcher,’ but the “pitcher” part cannot be overstated. Today’s game is all about velocity, especially in the playoffs, and pitchers can get away with mistakes as long as they throw hard. They can be “effectively wild,” which has taken away the “pitchability” from a lot of starters.

But the Dodgers starter does not have that luxury because his average four-seam fastball was 2.9 miles-per-hour slower than the MLB average, and he usually tops out at 92, like Game 1, which is still below the average. Ryu indeed “pitches,” meaning he mixes in four different pitches and is consistently changing speeds while using all four quadrants of the strike zone.

And because he doesn’t have high velocity, his margin of error is much lower, so he cannot afford to miss. And when the pressure is high in the postseason, palms get sweaty, heartbeats increase, you tend to overthink things and let emotions affect you too much so performances can dip when you combine all that with facing the best of the best.

But some guys just pitch terrific under the bright lights, and Ryu is starting to prove he is one of those guys. And not having even average velocity, is what makes it a little more impressive. The veteran always looks unfazed and makes you believe that his heartbeat slows down. He just goes about his business quickly and smoothly, always staying in rhythm and hardly missing his spots. And sometimes it doesn’t feel like a postseason or big regular season game when he takes the mound, and that is a credit to Ryu.

The Dodgers have Walker Buehler who appears to have what it takes to turn into a clutch pitcher, but the Dodgers have someone already in Ryu who is starting to earn that mantle. And if the NLDS does get to five games, Ryu vs. Kershaw will be a legitimate topic of discussion.

 

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