LOS ANGELES -- Clayton Kershaw took a swing so violently that his helmet nearly fell off. It was the bottom half of the sixth inning, midway through an intense, nine-pitch at-bat against Stephen Strasburg and toward the tail end of a highly anticipated matchup that actually lived up to the hype. By the end of Wednesday's game, Kershaw and Strasburg -- two frontline starters pitching at their very best, facing off for the very first time -- had combined to strike out 17 batters and allow only six hits.
Kershaw’s extended plate appearance ended in a weak groundout to the right side. But it drew a standing ovation from an announced crowd of 43,230 at Dodger Stadium, and it set a tone for the laborious frame that spoiled Strasburg’s otherwise spectacular afternoon.
The next batter, Chris Taylor, worked an eight-pitch at-bat before grounding out, and by that point Strasburg was tiring. He left a 2-1, 95-mph fastball just a tad up to Corey Seager, who deposited the pitch over the center-field fence. The next batter, Adrian Gonzalez, struck out but reached first on a passed ball and took second on a wild pitch. The next one, Yasmani Grandal, lined a double into the gap in left-center field to plate what became the winning run.
Strasburg, hoping for his first fully healthy season in three years, gave up two runs (one earned) on three hits and a walk, striking out eight. He dropped his ERA to 2.80, but he lost for the first time since the end of April because Kershaw, an early favorite for what would be his fourth NL Cy Young Award, pitched seven innings of one-run ball and refused to let his Dodgers get swept.
“He pitched really well,” Kershaw, now 8-2 with a 2.20 ERA, said of Strasburg. “It was a lot of unfortunate circumstances for us to get the runs there.”
The Dodgers (36-25) and Nationals (37-21) had just concluded three games that were decided by a total of four runs. They met in a thrilling, down-to-the-wire NLDS last year -- the Dodgers prevailed -- and now they possess the NL’s top two run differentials, favorites, once again, to win their respective divisions.
The Dodgers boast statistically the NL’s best pitching staff; the Nationals have its best lineup.
“Very evenly matched,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, calling the Nationals a “well-managed team, well-coached team. They have a nice blend of veterans and young players that can beat you with speed and power; they can pitch. But we can do some things, too. I don’t think this will be the last we see of these guys.”
Kershaw and Strasburg were supposed to face off here last year, on June 20, but Strasburg was scratched 90 minutes before the game because of back spasms that ultimately sent him to the disabled list. Ten days later, Kershaw went on the DL with his own back issues.
When their matchup finally came Wednesday, Nationals manager Dusty Baker, at the end of a long but encouraging West Coast trip, called this “the getaway game of the year.”
Strasburg and Kershaw had each bounced back admirably from injury-riddled seasons -- Strasburg on the strength of a delivery that has him pitching exclusively out of the stretch, Kershaw out of sheer will and determination. They arrived at Dodger Stadium having each allowed an opponents’ OPS of only .597, tying them for the third-lowest mark in the NL. Then the tandem proceeded to dominate again.
Kershaw allowed a leadoff homer to Ryan Zimmerman in the second, but nonetheless retired nine of his first 12 batters. Strasburg allowed just one hit through the first five innings and at one point tied Kerry Wood for the most strikeouts through a pitcher’s first 1,000 frames, with 1,166. Through four, they had combined for 12 strikeouts.
But Kershaw outlasted Strasburg, even though he admittedly “didn’t have much in the tank.”
Kershaw used his loopy curveball 24 percent of the time, more frequently than he has in any start over the past two years. It was because he didn’t have much on his fastball, but also because he has had so much success with his breaking ball. Over his past five starts, hitters are 0-for-24 with 13 strikeouts against Kershaw’s curve, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information.
On Wednesday, the Nats went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts against it and didn’t do much else with his other pitches.
“Being able to come out and watch Kershaw and Strasburg, that’s what fans want,” said Nats star Bryce Harper, now 2-for-23 with 14 strikeouts in his career against Kershaw. “Clayton is always really good out there, one of the best pitchers in baseball. Same with Stras. It’s a lot of fun to watch and be a part of.”
It was, finally, their first meeting.
It probably won’t be their last.