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Merrill Kelly, Clayton Kershaw trade places in Diamondbacks' historic Game 1 win

Patrick Lyons Avatar
October 7, 2023

DNVR Rockies beat writer Patrick Lyons is contributing to PHNX Sports’ coverage of the Diamondbacks’ postseason run. You can follow him on X, formerly Twitter, here.

Entering Game 1 of the National League Division Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks, the pitching matchup appeared remarkably one-sided.

L.A. had a .754 winning percentage (46-15) against Arizona since the start of the 2020 season. Clayton Kershaw had a 2.73 ERA in 44 starts against the D-backs while Merrill Kelly posted a 5.63 ERA against the Dodgers, but that figure is actually much worse when pitching at Dodger Stadium (7.03 ERA).

“I felt if I gave those games any attention I was going out there behind the 8-ball before I even stepped on the mound,” Kelly said of his prior performances against Los Angeles.

So, they played the game. And the outcome was the exact opposite of what many expected.

Arizona handed Los Angeles their worst postseason loss ever at Chavez Ravine, winning by a remarkable score of 11-2. Only one other time had the Dodgers lost by nine runs in the playoffs during their 140 years of existence. That was in 1956 when the club still played in Brooklyn.

Merrill Kelly and the Diamondbacks shined bright at Dodger Stadium in Game 1.

Kershaw, a first-ballot Hall of Famer with three Cy Young Awards and 210 career wins in the regular season, and Merrill Kelly, a player whose career as a minor leaguer was in such peril that he went to South Korea to ply his trade for four years, seemed to have switched places for one night. 

It wasn’t exactly a Freaky Friday situation with magical amulets or like Vice Versa (what, you don’t remember this Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage vehicle from 1988?) with an enchanted ancient skull, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the Elias Sports Bureau tweeted this out as a fact. You might even say both clubhouses switched roles with the way the veteran roster of the Dodgers performed against the upstart D-backs squad.

It took Kershaw 12 minutes to record his first out. During that time, Ketel Marte doubled to open the game, Corbin Carroll added an RBI single, Christian Walker knocked a two-run double and Gabriel Moreno launched a 419-foot home run to left field to score three more.

Kershaw became the first starter in postseason history to give up five hits and allow five runs before retiring his first batter. Kelly, on the other hand, recorded 11 consecutive outs between the third and sixth innings, some of which came his third time through the batting order.

The Diamondbacks' offense behind Merrill Kelly started fast in Game 1.

The D-backs’ starter threw 89 pitches and was removed with one out and one runner on base in the seventh. Conversely, the Dodgers darling was pulled after retiring just one of eight hitters in the first inning on 35 pitches, surrendering six earned runs in the process.

“I’m watching our guys beat up on one of the best pitchers that we’ve ever seen in our lives. And watching them do it in the first game I’ve ever pitched in the playoffs,” Kelly said after the game. “I couldn’t enjoy it too much, but I tried to enjoy it as much as I could.”

Kelly has quietly put together three consecutive quality seasons, amassing the 12th-most innings (536.0) of any starter in the game, and his 3.66 ERA during that time is better than four pitchers ahead of him on that leaderboard. Despite this ability to provide his club a chance to win every five days, the 34-year-old simply hasn’t pitched in many big games. 

An Arizona state championship as a high schooler, an appearance in the College World Series with Arizona State, plus his time with Team USA during the 2023 World Baseball Classic rank among his most notable performances in front of hostile crowds in must-win moments.

“We won the KBO in 2018,” Kelly said the day prior to his start. “Obviously the stadiums are a little bit smaller there than they are here, but the playoff experience and the loud atmosphere definitely has given me more experience going into these games.”

In his first ever postseason appearance, Kelly was the one with the slower heart rate than the active ace with 38 playoff appearances and 194 innings pitched in October.

“It was more shocking, I think, that those guys certainly had a great game plan tonight and they executed it,” Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts said of the final result. “We just never really had a chance to get to Kelly, and pitching with a good-sized lead.”

Tommy Pham hits a homer to give the Diamondbacks an 11-0 lead in the eighth inning.

“Surprising” is one way of describing the game, especially considering that Kershaw hadn’t been stuck with a loss against the Diamondbacks at home since President Barack Obama’s first term.

Before the game, though, something changed. It could have been tied to Kelly having to deal his father missing a flight or maybe a moment right out on the outfield grass at Dodger Stadium.

“Warming up there, we were both long-tossing at the same time before we went to the bullpen. He kind of gave me a little acknowledgment. And I gave it back,” Kelly said of his exchange with Kershaw.

Did their souls transfer from one player to the other? Were they conscious inside of one another’s body?

No. They just played baseball and the results were different on this day.

This is why they play the game.

Follow Patrick Lyons on X (formerly Twitter)

Top photo: Kiyoshi Mio/USA TODAY Sports

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