LOS ANGELES -- At one point as he was warming up in the bullpen about 10 minutes before the first pitch of a highly anticipated game, Clayton Kershaw threw a breaking ball in the dirt. After catcher A.J. Ellis chucked the ball back to him, Kershaw flung it against the bullpen wall in disgust. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt fetched him a fresh ball.
It seemed as if it was going to be an uphill fight after that, and it was. Kershaw's breaking balls were erratic and his ability to command his fastball was more unreliable than usual for a while. Against a team that hits as well as the Angels, with two of the most dangerous right-handed hitters alive, Kershaw was in a tough spot.
But his toughness might be his most underappreciated asset, and he managed to survive three rocky innings before, in the words of his manager, Don Mattingly, something clicked and Kershaw became Kershaw again.
"After the third, it seemed a lot smoother and easier and he had more depth to his slider," Mattingly said. "True Kershaw, he was just battling after that."
Kershaw got through seven strong innings before Mattingly, concerned about all the stressful innings he had thrown and the two consecutive complete games before this start, pulled him after 103 pitches. The Dodgers barely hung on. After Brian Wilson gave up the tying home run to Albert Pujols, the Dodgers managed to win it in the bottom of the ninth, 5-4, on a David Freese error.
So, no 14th win for Kershaw, no game-winning heroics for Mike Trout, but let's face it: Right now, it's all about Kershaw and Trout when these teams meet. For all anyone knows, they might be their leagues' respective MVPs, and they play for teams 31 miles apart. Tuesday was the first time those two ever faced each other in the regular season, and there were enough glimpses of both players' absurd skill sets to give fans of both teams reasons to gloat and reasons to seethe with envy.
And Kershaw wanted nothing to do with it. He glared when anyone asked about facing Trout afterward.
"I'll talk about the Angels, sure, he's one of their best hitters, absolutely," Kershaw said.
Then, when asked to elaborate on the one time he got Trout out on the night, he said, "Who are you talking about? I'm not going to talk about individual at-bats. I mean he's a great hitter and he got two hits tonight, so tip your cap."
The first regular-season pitch he ever threw to Trout was a fastball for a strike, then a curveball for a ball, before he went back to another 93 mph fastball. This time, Trout pulled it hard to the left side of the infield. Juan Uribe made a nice lunging pickup, but by the time his throw reached first base, Trout's heal had landed on the bag for an infield single (the replay -- oh, so close -- upheld it). Few right-handed hitters in baseball would have beaten the throw. Maybe two: Trout and Yasiel Puig?
No damage that inning, as Dee Gordon dug Kershaw's low throw out of the dirt and threw to first base from his knees to complete a double play on Pujols. The bottom half of the Angels order, however, would score two runs off Kershaw, his command still fuzzy, in the second inning.
The next time Kershaw saw Trout, he made a mistake. He threw him a 92 mph fastball on the low-and-outside corner. Trout likes the ball there. He extended his arms and ripped a double inside the third-base bag. Then again, was it a mistake? Trout might have ambushed Kershaw on that pitch. He rarely swings at the first pitch. He'd had five hits on the first pitch all season. So, maybe Kershaw thought it was an easy opportunity to get ahead. Kershaw threw about the same pitch to Pujols, who yanked it just past Uribe into the same corner to score Trout.
That wiped out all the work Uribe had done the half-inning before, when he hit a towering, three-run home run, tying the score at 3-3. Kershaw stalked around the mound. Uribe, though, helped preserve the tie by throwing Pujols out at the plate when he broke for home on the contact of Howie Kendrick's chopper to third.
When the inning was over, Kershaw walked slowly back to the dugout, sat on the bench, draped a towel across his legs and wrapped another towel around his left arm. Later, Kershaw had to stretch in the dugout because the Dodgers staged a long bottom of the third, driving up Hector Santiago's pitch count but unable to score.
Maybe he thought his way out of the funk with his spare time. Kershaw's command finally arrived in the fourth, letting him breeze through the final three batters in the Angels' lineup in 11 pitches. The third time he faced Trout, in the fifth, he pumped him three straight 94 mph fastballs on the edges of the strike zone. Trout took them all and struck out. Now Kershaw was in sync. He struck out Josh Hamilton to end the inning.
Six of his seven strikeouts came in the fourth through seventh innings.
The Dodgers and Angels are two of the best four teams in baseball. They both have the look of bona fide World Series contenders and, in the National League park, it's nine against nine. But until it's not, it’s all about Kershaw and Trout right now when they both take the field. Their first meeting wasn't either player's most exciting display, but they both have a way of drawing the eye, even on pedestrian nights.