Saturday night began with a pregame ceremony honoring Manny Mota, the former pinch-hitter extraordinaire, coach, broadcaster and community activist who became the sixth player selected one of the Legends of Dodger Baseball.
The rest of the evening belonged to the legend currently inhabiting the Dodgers' dugout and commanding the Chavez Ravine mound, Clayton Kershaw burnishing his Hall of Fame resume with seven innings of pure dominance in a 1-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals before an appreciative crowd of 48,763.
The 35-year-old left-hander retired the first 13 batters to kick off a seven-inning, two-hit, nine-strikeout, no-walk effort that improved the three-time National League Cy Young Award winner to 5-1 with a 1.89 earned-run average in six starts. The Cardinals entered with a major league-best .321 batting average against left-handers.
“Tonight was his best [of the season] for me as far as stuff from start to finish,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I thought his fastball glove-side, arm-side, the lateness of the curveball was as good as I’ve seen. The slider … the way he tunneled [pitches] was exceptional. That’s as good a team as you’re going to see against left-handed pitching, and the way he dominated those guys was impressive.”
Kershaw threw 88 pitches, 68 for strikes, the second-highest percentage (77.1%) of his 16-year career. He induced 19 swinging strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 23 batters and did not allow a runner past first.
“Strike one is important, but it’s not just pouring it down the middle,” Kershaw said. “You have to pick your spots, pick your pitches, and tonight [catcher Austin Barnes] and I kind of recognized that they were swinging a lot, so we did some things differently to get into the count. If you go 0-and-1, you should get the guy out.”
Kershaw, who notched his 200th career win in his previous Dodger Stadium start, needed only 43 pitches to breeze through the first four innings.
Though he twice flirted with perfect games last season, retiring 21 straight batters to open games at Minnesota on April 13 and at Anaheim on July 15, Kershaw did not believe he was on the precipice of history Saturday night.
“Four innings, you don’t really think about it,” Kershaw said. “But it’s nice to get off to a good start like that and to get into a rhythm. [Jordan] Montgomery pitched really well for them, so we had quick innings. That helps sometimes to stay in a rhythm.”
Kershaw didn’t flinch, retiring eight of the final nine hitters he faced. Paul Goldschmidt led off the seventh with a single, but Kershaw got Nolan Arenado to pop up to second, struck out Contreras on a looping, 71.5-mph curve, his slowest pitch of the night, and got Carlson to pop to second.
The Dodgers scored the game’s only run in the second inning when James Outman, who struck out in seven of his previous eight at-bats, grounded a one-out single to left-center, stole second, took third when the throw caromed off him and into left, and scored on a single to center by the .073-hitting Barnes.
“Yeah, it felt good,” Barnes said. “Obviously, I've been struggling a little bit. To come through, get a run across the board, especially with [Kershaw] on the mound … when he's on the mound and we have a lead, he's really, really good.”
Outman also lined a single to center in the fourth, easing concerns that the hot-hitting rookie might be in his first slump.
“It's been a tough few days for James, but even today, he came in fresh and positive, expecting something good to happen, as opposed to kind of running away and hiding,” Roberts said before the game. “You learn from players once they have a little bit of struggle, but our expectation is that James is going to be just fine.”
Carlson, the Cardinals center fielder, prevented the Dodgers from adding to their lead when he made a spectacular over-the-shoulder, behind-the-head, Jim Edmonds-like catch on the warning track to rob Mookie Betts in the fifth inning.
St. Louis threatened off reliever Evan Phillips in the eighth when Andrew Knizner walked and shortstop Chris Taylor couldn’t field Lars Nootbar’s hard grounder to his right cleanly, an error that put a Cardinals runner on second for the first time.
Pinch-hitter Brendan Donovan followed with a hard line drive toward center, but Taylor was positioned perfectly to make the inning-ending catch. Brusdar Graterol gave up a hit in a scoreless ninth to close out the 2-hour 14-minute game.
Kershaw said he felt good enough to start the eighth, “but Doc kind of seemed like he had his mind made up,” he said. “Obviously, with Evan and Brusdar ready to go against a righty-heavy lineup, I understand.”
Roberts bristled when asked why he took Kershaw out when he did.
“First off, Clayton is always going to say [he can continue], so I think we can put this to bed about every fifth day when I decide to take Clayton Kershaw out of a game,” Roberts said. “The stuff started to tick down a little bit. The last few starts, we’ve ridden him. There’s a long way to go. Regardless of the outcome, it was the right decision.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.