KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Albert Pujols got the first and Gerardo Parra the most recent. In between them, 359 players combined for 945 more of baseball's great treasure: a hit off Clayton Kershaw. It's a keepsake, a memento for conversations decades from now, when the baseball world glances back at the beginning of Kershaw's career and recognizes how truly remarkable it was.
He's in the midst of his seventh season, and even after three straight National League ERA titles, a pair of Cy Young Awards and the seven-year, $215 million contract, the 26-year-old Kershaw won't stop getting better. Only in the official box score was his no-hit, no-walk, 15-strikeout masterpiece last week against the Colorado Rockies not perfection. Hanley Ramirez's error couldn't soil the sense of a master craftsman at his apex, swing after feeble swing telling Kershaw's story far better than words, numbers or pictures possibly could.
All they wanted was a measly hit – a dribbler down the third-base line, an excuse-me check-swing doinker into right field, a broken-bat double that kicks up some chalk. Anything is better than nothing. Nearly 43 percent of the 631 hitters Kershaw has faced haven't got a hit off him. Poor Tim Lincecum is 0 for 12. At least he's got an excuse that he's a pitcher. Jonathan Lucroy and Jason Heyward hit for a living and are 0 for 10. Forty-nine players went hitless in their only at-bat against Kershaw. The marriage of his relentlessness and natural talent is the unholiest of matrimonies for hitters.
And it's what the Kansas City Royals faced Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium. Within the last week, they had lit up past Cy Young winners Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke. They wanted Kershaw, in his first game after the no-hitter, as their next pelt. None of Kershaw's previous 194 games pitched came against Kansas City, which left the Royals' thinking in particularly wishful territory. To see Clayton Kershaw for the first time is to stare down the impossible and endeavor to conquer it.
Before every game, small TV screens in the Royals' clubhouse broadcast a highlight clip of the opposing starting pitcher's previous couple games. If hitters don't want to study the pitcher on their iPads or use video consoles, perhaps the looping film will foster knowledge by osmosis.
Billy Butler didn't pay all that much attention to it. "He's the best pitcher in the world," Butler said. And it wasn't resignation so much as recognition that anybody who goes into the batter's box against Kershaw with a game plan is likely to watch it vanish amid a flurry of fastballs, sliders and curveballs.
Butler is the Royals' longtime designated hitter, the most tenured player in the clubhouse despite being only 28 years old, a former All-Star and Silver Slugger winner who entered Tuesday's game with 1,200 career hits. He has faced great pitchers and hit great pitchers and looked clueless against great pitchers. Baseball has a special way of making the best hitters look downright mediocre 70 percent of their at-bats. The game's natural balance, its true order, emanates from a lopsided advantage apportioned to the pitcher. He stands atop the mound and dictates the game, with hitters hoping they guess right and hoping even more they make the proper adjustment if they don't.
"If you've never faced someone, you stick to your strengths," Kershaw said. "Unless something is glaring – where they really hit this pitch in a certain situation."
Kershaw did not go into his at-bats against Butler looking to feed him one particular pitch again and again. He would present a mélange of his finest offerings and dare Butler to get his keepsake. To illustrate what it's like trying to get a hit off Kershaw, Butler agreed to guide Yahoo Sports through a single at-bat, pitch-by-pitch, and explain his thoughts, his ideas and, ultimately, the outcome.
It was the fourth inning. Eric Hosmer stood on first base, owner of the only two hits to that point against Kershaw. The Dodgers led 1-0.
First pitch: 92-mph fastball, inside corner
Butler stared at the pitch. He wasn't going to hit into another first-pitch double play, as he had in the first inning. Home-plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt called it a strike. Butler disagreed. He thought the pitch was inside. It wasn't. Being down 0-1 to Kershaw is no treat.
At the same time, Kershaw wasn't altogether content, either. However nervous finishing the no-hitter made him, he preferred it to pitching with a runner on first in the fourth inning of a one-run game in June. History barely fazed Kershaw. This was far worse.
"Definitely with guys on base," he said. "I think you kind of feel the same nervousness as you're starting a game with a no-hitter in the ninth inning, but at the end of the day, if you give up a hit, you're still winning the game. Obviously, personally, it's pretty cool to do that, but if you give up a run with a guy on base, the game is tied or we end up losing."
Second pitch: 87-mph slider, inside corner
Kershaw stretched his arms high into the air. He pulled them down slowly while pulling in a deep breath and came set. His body unfurled toward home plate. The slider barely missed what is supposed to be the strike zone, a fraction of an inch high. Wendelstedt called it a strike anyway, because this was Clayton Kershaw, and umpires as a general rule don't squeeze Hall of Fame pitchers.
"The first two pitches were off," Butler said. "That's how it is."
However it was, he did not appreciate it. Butler stepped away again, glancing his eyes back at Wendelstedt without turning his head. Passive-aggressiveness with umpires beats outright aggressiveness, though Butler did mutter a few words to Wendelstedt when he stepped back in. Because he knew his new reality.
Over the 1,082 at-bats in which hitters have faced 0-2 counts against Clayton Kershaw, they're hitting .117.
Third pitch: 86-mph slider, low and inside
Butler figured the slider was coming. Funny thing about Kershaw's slider: When he arrived in the major leagues at 20 years old, he didn't throw it. Kershaw picked it up in his second season, fell in love with it by his third and now throws it more than 30 percent of the time, this mid-80s monster that tilts like a degenerate gambler.
"He's got a lot of different weapons, but there's one glaring strength," Butler said. "His slider is probably the best pitch in baseball. You just don't want to get to it."
He got it, and he restrained himself, not because Kershaw throws sliders 41 percent of the time on two-strike counts or because right-handers are 1 for 9 with eight strikeouts when they swing at it but because he knows Kershaw feasts on guys chasing it out of the strike zone, and he wanted to be the one feasting.
Fourth pitch: 74-mph curveball, low
When Kershaw was a 19-year-old in spring training, the legendary Vin Scully watched him freeze Sean Casey with a nose-to-knee curveball and nicknamed it Public Enemy No. 1. As the slider grew into a monster, Kershaw almost mothballed the curveball. He brought it back and now employs it almost exclusively as a strikeout weapon.
"I'm just trying to survive," Butler said. "There's not much you can do. I'm trying to put the ball in play, honestly."
All Butler could do was lunge at it. Casey and dozens of other players' knees went to jelly at the sight of it. Butler hated the idea of being another highlight. His bat nicked the edge of the ball. He would survive to see another pitch.
Fifth pitch: 94-mph fastball, middle of the plate
This was Butler's chance. Kershaw lacked fastball command Tuesday, failing to locate it in the exact spot of his choosing. Among other qualities, this separates him, makes him the elite of the elite. To survive nearly four shutout innings without it was a victory in and of itself.
"All night, he felt like he was kinda fightin' it," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "I think he felt like his fastball command wasn't quite where he wanted it. Typical Clayton, he just keeps going on and uses something different and not giving in to anything going on out there."
Even though the ball was over the plate, Butler swung late. The previous pitch came in 20 mph slower. The art of changing speeds isn't just baseball blather. It works in practice, and to follow 74 with 94 borders on unfair.
"I was lucky to foul it off," Butler said. "He slowed me down so much."
Sixth pitch: 87-mph slider, bounced in front of plate
It's the little things with Clayton Kershaw. His delivery looks like a parody of bad deliveries, what with the double-clutch leg kick, the tiny arm whip, the awful pacing and monstrous explosion toward the plate. He contorts his body in a way that not only allows him to repeat that janky delivery over and over but to hide the ball behind his body first and his head later. Kershaw is 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds of deception.
And that's with his normal windup. When Kershaw pitches out of the stretch, the advantage strengthens. Most pitchers take about 1.3 seconds to deliver a ball to the plate. That drops to about 1.1 seconds out of a slide step. Kershaw's slide step is like throwing a baseball with four arrows on the DVR's fast-forward button.
"He's like a 0.9 to the plate with his slide step," Butler said. "That makes his 92, 93 play like 100. It's tough. You just can't get your timing off him. … He's so fast out of the stretch, you can't help but sit on fastball."
This was the worst pitch Butler saw, poorly executed, a 55-foot breaking ball that would fool only the least-disciplined hitters.
"Even the best throw bad pitches," he said.
Butler considered that thought for a moment.
"He doesn't throw very many of 'em."
Seventh pitch: 86-mph slider, inner half
Kershaw held the ball behind his back and spun it in his hand. He came set. Butler had seen three sliders, two fastballs and a curveball. He thought slider but sat fastball and worried curve. You can see why Clayton Kershaw is the foremost enemy of hitters everywhere, owner of three devastating pitches that he can unleash at any moment, and why hitting a baseball at all, let alone hitting it hard, is such an underappreciated feat.
Kershaw went slider.
"It started up and just disappeared," Butler said. "Had downward depth on it. Some of them go side-to-side, like a cutter, but this one was gone."
Butler swung over it for strike three. It was Kershaw's fourth strikeout of the night. He'd get more.
By the end of the evening, Kershaw faced 30 batters. He threw 108 pitches, 70 for strikes. He went eight innings, walked one and struck out eight. He did not allow a run. He did yield six hits, including two each to Hosmer and Danny Valencia, neither of whom had faced him before, and one to Omar Infante, who managed a pair of hits in nine previous at-bats.
The other hit came in the sixth inning. There were two outs. The batter stared at a 93-mph fastball on the inside corner for strike one. He swung badly through a 74-mph curveball for strike two. The count was 0-2. Kershaw threw a slider. The script was written. And the batter flipped it.
"I swung at it because I had to," Billy Butler said. "That's all there is to it. He's some sort of special."
It was a good slider, too, and that left Butler as edified as one can be after a 2-0 loss in front of a crowd of 28,302 eager to see this on-the-cusp team do to Kershaw what it had done to others. That didn't happen. This wasn't perfect Kershaw, by any means, but eight shutout innings isn't exactly ho-hum, either. Kershaw is baseball's best pitcher because he can turn what amounts to an off-night into a spectacular performance.
Kershaw tried to shake off Butler's single. "Sign of a good hitter," he said. "Made an adjustment. Got a hit." Then he went 3-0 on the next batter, Alex Gordon. Pressure again. He'd faced it for years, against the few who own him – Adam Dunn (8 for 13 with four HRs) and Chris Denorfia (three home runs, the only other hitter with more than two) and Dexter Fowler (the most hits, 16 in 38 at-bats) and Pujols (9 for 20, including that first one) – and some who don't.
He came set and fired a 94-mph fastball. Strike one looking. And again, with a 93-mph fastball. Strike two looking. And Gordon knew what was coming next, just like everyone knew what was coming next, and he swung at a slider in the strike zone, and right then and there, he learned exactly what it's like trying to get a hit off Clayton Kershaw.
Conquering the impossible is even harder than it looks.
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