LOS ANGELES – Back in April and May. when he was sitting out five weeks because of a strained muscle in the back of his shoulder, it looked like Clayton Kershaw’s chances for a third Cy Young Award in the past four years, a fourth consecutive ERA title or even a fifth consecutive 200-strikeout season were seriously diminished.
What were we thinking?
Kershaw’s summer of extended excellence continued into September as he held the Washington Nationals to three hits over eight innings of a 4-1 Dodgers victory Tuesday night.
“Just take my quotes from last game,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly joked after Kershaw’s latest gem. “I think he spoils us, that’s for sure.”
Kershaw became the first 17-game winner in the majors while lowering his major-league best ERA to 1.70. He struck out eight Nationals in his eight innings, joining Sandy Koufax as the only Dodgers pitchers to have five (or more in Koufax’s case) consecutive 200-strikeout seasons.
Kershaw got there in the sixth inning Tuesday, just 167 1/3 innings into his season. His strikeout rate this season is a career-high (10.73) and the best in the National League.
“You just want to be consistent,” said Kershaw, who allowed one run or none for the 16th time his 23 starts. “It’s a cliché but you want to give your team a chance. You’re only playing once every five days (as a starting pitcher), you want to contribute.”
The first hit Kershaw allowed was a second-inning single to Wilson Ramos. The second was a solo home run to Bryce Harper in the seventh inning for the Nationals’ only run (the only home run Kershaw has allowed to a left-handed hitter this season).
In between, Kershaw retired 17 of 18, including 12 consecutive batters before Harper’s homer. Harper was the only Nationals baserunner to touch second base safely against Kershaw.
“Clayton dominates everybody – right, left, switch-hitters, backup catchers,” Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said. “It doesn’t matter who’s up there.”
Mattingly stopped Kershaw an inning short of adding to his major-league leading total with a seventh complete game despite just 108 pitches. But Tuesday was the fifth consecutive start Kershaw has pitched at least eight innings.
“Again, I think it just shows his value,” Mattingly said. “He gets deep in the game, giving our offense time to get going, buying us time – and then basically gets the offense going himself, going first to third there. He basically gets us two runs.”
In the fifth inning of a scoreless game, Kershaw singled off Nationals starter Doug Fister. When Dee Gordon followed with a single to center field, Kershaw rolled on through second base, drawing a throw from Harper to third base that allowed Gordon to take second base and prompted Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon to relay Harper’s throw to second in a vain attempt to get Gordon without even attempting a tag on Kershaw.
“I don’t know what I was thinking there,” Kershaw said. “I don’t get that opportunity much. He’s got a really good arm in center field. Probably a dumb play looking back on it. But it worked out.”
Kershaw and Gordon both scored when Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond misplayed Adrian Gonzalez’s infield single, one of a series of defensive blunders by the Nationals that probably had pre-game guest Mo’ne Davis shaking her head at the poor fundamentals.
But Mattingly wasn’t shaking his head in disapproval after watching his ace risking harm on the basepaths.
“I guess you can look at it that way – you want to put him in a bubble when he’s not throwing,” Mattingly said. “But he’s a baseball player. He’s trying to win a game. We’re in a pennant race. Do you want him to back off?”
Kershaw joked about his poor technique in going first to third – taking “a 90-degree turn; a whole lot of bad baserunning there,” he said – but wasn’t about to apologize for his aggressive instincts.
“You play once every five days. I don’t really think running the bases is going to wear me out,” he said. “There are times (when you take it easy) like if there’s two outs and you hit a ball right back to the pitcher. But it might help you win a game like it did tonight.”
Kershaw joked that he’d love to play more than once every five days but “I don’t quite hit enough.” Nonetheless, he finished the night with a batting average (.173) higher than his ERA (1.70).
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