You don't see many pitchers like Clayton Kershaw these days. A truly rare performer who doesn't give two shakes about his pitch count and with few exceptions remains consistent throughout his starts. Most nights it seems as if Kershaw has a baseball on a yo-yo string and everyone's just along for the ride. Wednesday's gem was one of those nights, but it wasn't that way to start the year.
It took Kershaw 132 (!) pitches to finish off a 2-1 complete-game, Dodgers sweep of the Giants. On a strikeout no less. He induced 35 swings and misses, topping Johan Santana's 32 in 2007 for the most recorded in a single game in the last 10 seasons. He was a relentless ace, the kind from another era that you dreamed of seeing yet doubted its possibility in today's game.
Eleven batters were retired to start the game following a picked-off single. The only run came on the weakest of hits that had no business messing with Kershaw's dominant performance. A walk had broken up the 11 straight retired in progress. A weak bunt pop fly to the second baseman was followed by a steal of second and a ground ball into the shortstop/third base hole that scored the Giants' lone run. In retrospect it was more of a consolation prize.
This wasn't going to be a no-hitter. No, Kershaw allowed six hits and his only walk came back to bite him as walks are wont to do. Consider for a moment then, what he gave the Dodgers, and baseball fans everywhere on Wednesday night. Supremacy.
Kershaw went into the ninth with a slim 2-1 lead and his pitch count at 107. He wracked up 25 pitches in the ninth and struck out his 14th batter of the night before giving up back-to-back two-out singles. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly had just sat there until the second single forced him to call the bullpen and personally pay a visit to the mound. At 127 pitches you'd expect that to be the end of the night for Kershaw. But it was not.
Sidestep the unreasonably close camera angles on Kershaw's face in the ninth. On the mound he seemed cool as a cucumber in an ice box. His pupils remained constant. His rhythm was the same. Vin Scully called an outing that would make even earlier-season Kershaw blush.
The at-bat between Kershaw and Marlon Byrd lasted just five pitches. Kershaw broke 90 mph twice, both missing the strike zone. All three strikes were on a high-80s filthy sliders. He pulled the string, even as he passed 130 pitches. It earned Kershaw his second career 15-strikeout game, and a season-high that topped his 14-strikeout performance on Aug. 28. He became just the third pitcher in the modern era to allow one run or less and strike out at least 14 batters in back-to-back starts, according to Elias Sports.
The Dodgers are now 47-21 at home and have won eight of their last 10. Kershaw owns 10 of those 47 wins in 13 of his home starts and he's won five straight starts at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers are in first place in the NL West with a 75-57 record and a 6 1/2 game lead over the Giants -- who are in second place.
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With that said, at some point you begin to wonder when the ride will end. In reality, that came about at the start of the 2015 season. At least that's what everyone thought. Kershaw's string was broken and his yo-yo was shattered in little pieces on the floor. He made your kids cry and you had no idea how to fix the problem. Baseball wondered if Kershaw's best days were behind him or some such nonsense.
Kershaw lasted just six innings and gave up three runs on six hits and walked two on Opening Day. Six of his first nine starts, he didn't make it out of the seventh and four times he lasted six innings or less. He gave up four or more runs on three occasions and his ERA was an unsightly 4.32. Not the ace that baseball was hoping to see.
By this point it'd become almost expected for Kershaw to be nearly perfect. Inconsistency just wasn't a word you used when describing him. Yet, that's what was happening for the first two months of the year. He gave up five home runs in those nine starts and opposing hitters were batting .250 off him. It seemed as if Kershaw's luck had run out and fans were getting restless. Yet, his FIP (fielding independent pitching) remained relatively constant despite the poor record.
May 26. The last start of the month for Kershaw. Four hits, no runs and 10 strikeouts across seven innings. For the next nine starts until the 2015 MLB All-Star Game, Kershaw did a 180. Eyes were rubbed. ACME blinking sounds were made. Et tu, Kershaw? He had found his string and got a new yo-yo, so to speak. Better, stronger, scarier. In nine games Kershaw put up a 1.53 ERA and finished the first half of the season with an eight-hit, 13-strikeout shutout performance. On 123 pitches.
Since May 26, Kershaw has given up seven homers across 18 games and opposing batters are hitting a mere .175 against him. He put up 37 scoreless innings, the fifth-longest streak in Dodgers history, and is one of only six pitchers since 1974 to have multiple 30-plus-inning scoreless streaks. His ERA has dropped from 4.32 to 2.18 on the season. He's put up two shutouts, three complete games and 10 games with double-digit strikeouts in that time.
This is Kershaw, but so too were the two months that can't be undone. If you're going to take the good, the bad can't be ignored. But that's what makes Kershaw so unique. Maybe he just woke up and figured it out one morning or maybe he'd simply finally worked out the kinds of a truly weird period of Kershaw baseball. Either way, he kept trucking along until he found his rhythm again and the Dodgers are the better for it.