ATLANTA — Give Clayton Kershaw a 5-0 lead by the fourth inning, and there’s not much chance he’ll mess things up.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are off to quite a start in the NL division series.
Kershaw struck out 12 during seven dominant innings, Adrian Gonzalez hit a two-run homer and the Dodgers beat the Atlanta Braves 6-1 in Game 1 on Thursday night.
The big-money Dodgers haven’t won a World Series championship since 1988 — by far their longest dry spell since the franchise moved from Brooklyn to Southern California in 1958.
In an interesting twist, Kershaw was born the same year as that most recent title. If the ace left-hander keeps pitching the way he did in his first postseason win, the Dodgers might have a chance to go all the way again.
“This one definitely has special meaning to me,” Kershaw said.
For the bumbling Braves, it was another dose of October misery.
“When you have an opposing pitcher on the mound who is as good as Kershaw, there’s not a lot of room for error,” said Atlanta starter Kris Medlen, knocked out in the fifth. “I had a lot of error tonight.”
Game 2 in the best-of-five series is Friday night in Atlanta, with Zack Greinke (15-4) starting for the Dodgers against Mike Minor (13-9).
Kershaw, who had a 1.83 ERA during the regular season, limited the Braves to Chris Johnson’s run-scoring single with two outs in the fourth. That just seemed to make the pitcher mad — he struck out Andrelton Simmons to end Atlanta’s only serious threat, and the next five Braves hitters for good measure.
Appropriately, Kershaw finished up by striking out the side in the seventh, matching his season high for Ks. He allowed just three hits.
“He’s the best pitcher in baseball,” Gonzalez said, “and he showed it tonight.”
Atlanta struck out 15 times in all.
Even though slugger Matt Kemp is out for the playoffs and Andre Ethier is hobbling with an injured ankle, the Dodgers had no trouble piling up runs against Medlen, who came into the playoffs riding a five-game winning streak.
He gave up nine hits and five runs in four-plus innings, finally getting the hook when he plunked Yasiel Puig with a pitch right between the shoulder blades.
Of course, Medlen would’ve fared better if he’d gotten any help from the guys behind him.
The Braves played some truly atrocious defense, though they were not charged with an error.
In the second, rookie left fielder Evan Gattis flopped to the ground in an attempt to catch a sinking liner, only to look very much like the converted catcher he is. The ball hit by A.J. Ellis rolled all the way to the wall for an RBI double, putting the Dodgers ahead 2-0 on a play that an outfielder with even a modest amount of experience probably would’ve grabbed fairly easily.
“I thought there was a couple plays that we could have made,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “I think that the guys were just a little amped up.”
Adrian Gonzalez began to put it out of reach in the third, driving a pitch over the center-field wall for his first postseason homer, a two-run shot that made it 4-0 as a sense of doom fell over a Turner Field crowd that had been so raucous in the first when Medlen struck out the side.
Not that Atlanta fans haven’t seen this all before.
The Braves are perhaps best known for winning only one World Series ring during a historic run of 14 straight division titles. Now, they’re already in the hole as they try to snap a streak of losing seven straight postseason series since 2001.
At least they’re not done yet.
After losing to St. Louis in a one-and-done wild-card game last season, which was marred by a disputed infield-fly call, the Braves have a chance to bounce back this time.
In addition to Gattis’ stumbling attempt at a catch, second baseman Elliot Johnson bobbled Carl Crawford’s grounder leading off the third, a play that was generously ruled a hit by the official scorer. Medlen retired the next two hitters, but Gonzalez drove the next pitch over the wall, with Jason Heyward making a futile leap that left him hanging from the top.
Heyward, who was moved from right field to center as part of an outfield reshuffling, had his own problems. Twice, he overthrew the cutoff man on throws to the plate, allowing runners to advance. Just to add to Atlanta’s outfield woes, Justin Upton wasn’t even close on a sliding attempt when Ellis doubled down the right-field line in the fourth.
He wound up scoring on Mark Ellis’ two-out single, stretching the lead to 5-0.
Kershaw struggled with command of his fastball, but worked more off his breaking pitches and made it look easy against the free-swinging Braves.
“Strikeouts just kind of happen,” he said. “It’s not something I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to get outs as fast as possible.”
Gattis, one of Atlanta’s most pleasant surprises during the regular season, had a miserable night in his postseason debut. He ended the second by somehow getting doubled off first on a lazy fly to short right field.
Dan Uggla watched it all from the dugout. The three-time All-Star was left off the Braves’ playoff roster after a dismal season in which he batted just .179 with a franchise-record 171 strikeouts.
Uggla wasn’t the only big-money flop for the Braves, who had to juggle their outfield because of B.J. Upton’s season-long slump. After signing a five-year, $75.25 million deal during the offseason, he batted just .184 and was finally benched late in the year. Merely a backup in the playoffs, he took a called third strike as a pinch-hitter in the fifth and walked slowly toward the dugout to a chorus of boos.
“It just got away from us,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said.