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Kershaw solves the Arizona puzzle

LOS ANGELES – The average baseball fan looks at the Arizona Diamondbacks and sees, frankly, a bad baseball team, one that has been huffing and puffing to get out of last place since it got back from Australia nearly three months ago.

Clayton Kershaw looks at the Diamondbacks and sees a riddle he couldn’t afford not to solve.

Before Kershaw got on the mound Friday night, he likely had an inkling that Gerardo Parra pretty much had his number, batting .333 against him with three doubles; that Aaron Hill seemed pretty comfortable, hitting .308 off him. He probably knew he had contained Arizona’s best player, Paul Goldschmidt, but Goldschmidt had done his damage, too, at times, with three extra-base hits.

And there was, of course, May 17, the day the Diamondbacks hit Kershaw around at Chase Field, forcing him to stalk off the mound in the second inning, his Los Angeles Dodgers losing 7-0 already. Think he forgot that night?

It was the second-shortest outing of Kershaw’s career and, coming just 11 days after he’d returned from a long stay on the disabled list, it left an air of uncertainty around the best pitcher in the National League.

One of the traits that makes Kershaw special is his unwillingness to settle. A lot of major league players eventually accept that some matchups simply don’t work in their favor. Kershaw isn’t one of them. So he worked meticulously through Friday night’s 4-3 Dodgers victory over Arizona, like a surgeon who knows one twitch could kill the patient.

Other than Matt Kemp’s first-inning home run, the Dodgers weren’t scoring for him and Arizona was getting on base plenty -- eight hits off Kershaw, plus a walk. If he was going to force his way back on top of an opponent that had embarrassed him last time out, he was going to have to use everything at his disposal.

“It was very stressful. There were guys on base the whole night," Kershaw said. "That’s a good team. I’ve said it earlier. Their offense is tough to go through."

But he did so, striking out seven batters in seven innings. Since the bad start in Arizona, Kershaw is 3-1 with a 1.85 ERA, holding opposing batters to a .189 average. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said he made himself nervous by listening to Vin Scully’s pregame scene-setter on the left-field scoreboard.

“It talked about what Kersh’s record was against the Diamondbacks and things like that, knowing what happened in Arizona,” Mattingly said. “But also knowing Kersh, we know he’s going to come out and battle and, it seemed like as the game went on, he got even better.”

It’s not entirely possible that won’t prove an apt description of Kershaw’s 2014 season. Mattingly spent a lot of time this spring talking about ways he would limit Kershaw’s innings, but that might have been taken care of for him when Kershaw missed five weeks resting a strained muscle in his upper back.

He’s 6-2 with a 2.93 ERA and has pitched just 55⅓ innings, about 60 percent of the workload he would normally be carrying at this time of year. It’s possible Kershaw could be at his strongest in August, September and October. Does he still have time to salvage another Cy Young season? Could he be primed for the best deep run of his pitching career?

The best answer to the first question is, “Probably,” and, to the second, it’s, “If he keeps solving problems as he did Friday, why not?”