LOS ANGELES – It had been almost a month, after all, so Clayton Kershaw watched this tracer shot in the sixth inning Thursday night with some curiosity.
Off Chase Headley's bat barrel, a one-ball, two-strike slider turned around with reasonable authority, the seventh pitch in the at-bat, the 550th pitch since something like this had happened, the baseball climbed and backspun and carried over the left center-field fence at Dodger Stadium.
From more than 50,000, there was silence. There followed an ovation for the 41 innings that preceded this one, for the 127 outs that had come and gone without incident. It hadn't been Hershiser or Drysdale, this streak, not even all that close, but it had been cool nonetheless, yet another Kershaw thing in a season of them. The no-hitter. The major league-leading 1.78 ERA. The strikeouts-per-walk approaching 10. The wins piling up, now eight in eight starts since the dawn of June, an 0.74 ERA in them. In a season that began a hemisphere away and stalled out early with five weeks on the disabled list, Kershaw, the two-time Cy Young Award winner, had returned better than ever.
Headley homered and tied the score, 1-1, and Kershaw rubbed up a new baseball and waited for Headley to finish. He'd watched it go and dipped his head and – guaranteed – he was thinking only of a lead lost in the sixth inning. He struck out Carlos Quentin on a curveball to end the inning, and the crowd rose and honored him again, and what Kershaw did was wipe the sweat from his face with a bit of his jersey.
"He has a relentless will to win," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "He imposes his will on the other team: 'I'm going to win today.'"
And when he'd thrown a last curveball past Rene Rivera, and when the Dodgers had beaten the San Diego Padres 2-1, Kershaw had pitched three more scoreless innings. He'd retired 10 of the last 11 hitters, finished with 85 strikes in 115 pitches, struck out 11, walked one, and thoroughly dominated the worst offensive team in the game on a night he had to. He pumped his fist.
"I don't really care about an innings streak," he said. "We're not supposed to give up runs. That's our job."
That said, in the expansion era, there'd been four longer streaks; Orel Hershiser's 59 innings in 1988, Don Drysdale's 58 in 1968, Bob Gibson's 47 in 1968 and Brandon Webb's 42 in 2007. Kershaw's 41 matched Luis Tiant's 41 from '68.
Again, he commanded a fastball that ran to 93 or 94 mph. He threw his slider for strikes, along with his curveball. The Padres wanted no part of the breaking balls, so generally set to swinging early in counts, and through four one-hit innings Kershaw had thrown 46 pitches, 37 for strikes. After five, he was at 61 pitches. It is the conundrum of scheming against pitchers such as Kershaw. That is, swing early at fastballs and hope for hits and baserunners, only to get few of either and find yourself running out of game, with Kershaw still sharp and strong.
Kershaw was at 107 pitches through eight innings. There was no conversation in the dugout.
"It's hard to take him out," manager Don Mattingly said. "There's nobody out there [in the bullpen] who's better than him, so…"
Kershaw's next outing will be the All-Star Game on Tuesday in Minnesota. He could get the start for the National League, though the decision belongs to NL manager Mike Matheny, whose own pitcher, Adam Wainwright, has been excellent, as well, over more innings.
"Whatever Mike decides is fine by me," Kershaw said.
He shrugged. Those sorts of things aren't his job.
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