Kershaw the Magnificent tossed his first complete game of 2017, striking out 13 in the Los Angeles Dodgers' 5-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals. Somehow he managed to throw only 99 pitches despite that many strikeouts. In fact ...
Clayton Kershaw is the first pitcher in MLB history to strike out at least 13 in a complete game with fewer than 100 pitches.
— Jon Weisman (@jonweisman) July 9, 2017
It was his 21st career game with at least 10 K's and no walks, tying Roger Clemens for third all time behind only Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Kershaw is now 14-2 with a 2.18 ERA and he's on pace for 25 victories, has won seven consecutive starts and, since that four-homer game against the New York Mets that had everyone wondering what's up with him, he has pitched 29 innings in four games with 44 strikeouts, five walks and three runs.
Those are the numbers and they're obviously wonderful, but with Kershaw we can look beyond the statistics and just appreciate the art of his ability. How often do we get to see one of the best ever at his craft? The numbers and the wins are the end result, like seeing a Picasso in a museum, but with Kershaw we get to see the action as the canvas comes to life.
I think that four-homer game was an insult to him. Even though he won, it was almost an embarrassment. He can look over his shoulder and see arguments for Max Scherzer or Chris Sale as the best starter in the game, and while Kershaw doesn't have the ego to suggest it publicly, you know he wants to be the best. The great ones do.
All of which is a scary proposition for the rest of the National League, because the Dodgers just concluded one of the greatest first halves in MLB history. At 61-29, they're on pace for 110 wins. After starting 10-12, they've gone an insane 51-17 -- a ridiculous .750 winning percentage. The great teams win three-quarters of their games in the NBA or NFL; you don't do that in baseball. The Dodgers have now done that for more than two months.
The Astros, however, are right behind them. After pounding the Toronto Blue Jays for five home runs in a 19-1 win Sunday -- Carlos Correa had two home runs, four hits and five RBIs and Jose Altuve homered and raised his average to .347 -- the Astros finished the first half at 60-29 on pace for a 109 wins. In the 162-game era, only four teams have won 109 games: the 1961 New York Yankees, 1969 Baltimore Orioles, 1998 Yankees and 2001 Seattle Mariners. All-Star breaks aren't always at the same point in the season, but the Dodgers and Astros have the fourth- and fifth-largest run differentials at the break in MLB history.
In the understatement of the season, Correa said after the game, "I feel like we have a really good team. From [hitters] 1 through 9, we can do damage, so today we showed what we're capable of." That's true, but George Springer, Altuve and Correa are the heart of the lineup and they rank second, third and fifth in the American League in OPS. Aaron Judge is the leading AL MVP candidate, but if he falters in the second half, the three Astros are all having MVP-caliber seasons.
Does this mean the Dodgers and Astros are on a collision course for the World Series? Maybe. Or maybe not. Consider that during the wild-card era -- 22 postseasons since 1995 -- only 14 of 44 teams that led their league in wins reached the World Series (32 percent). Of the 22 teams to win 100 games, seven reached the World Series and only three won (the 1998 Yankees, the 2009 Yankees and the 2016 Chicago Cubs).
I'll say this: If these teams both win 109 games, I'll be rooting for a Dodgers-Astros World Series. Kershaw versus Springer, Altuve and Correa? Yeah, that would be something to watch.
A few more first-half nuggets to consider:
Home runs, home runs ... and more home runs: Not including the Sunday night finale, we're on pace for 6,125 home runs, which would shatter the record of 5,693 set in 2000. Ten teams are on pace to set franchise records in home runs. There have been 217 multihomer games -- more than two per day on average. Over 42 percent of runs come via the home run, a record pace. Twenty-four players enter the break with 20-plus home runs, with Judge leading the way at 30. Many long-term veterans like Justin Smoak, Mike Moustakas and Yonder Alonso have already broken their career highs. Springer hit 29 last year and has 27. Joey Votto hit 29 last season and has 26. Cody Bellinger hit 23 in Double-A and has 25 in the majors.
Players might be doing the same thing over and over again, but in this case, that's a very good thing. Unless you're a pitcher.
The most disappointing team of the first half is ... the Cubs: I know, San Francisco Giants fans expected their name to be called, but everyone expected the Cubs to be good and possibly win 100 games again. Instead, they're now 43-45 after hitting rock bottom Sunday as Jon Lester gave up 10 runs in the top of the first inning of a 14-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Lester became just the fourth starter since 1900 to give up 10-plus runs while lasting less than an inning. Ouch.
The best part of today's game is that the Chicago Cubs won Game 7 of the 2016 World Series
— Eric (@ericmichel) July 9, 2017
P.S.: The Giants had the best record at the All-Star break last year. They're 64-98 since. Man, baseball can be cruel.
First-half all-surprise team: Positive note! Here's my "Who's doing WHAT?!?!?" All-Stars:
C: Alex Avila, Tigers (.303/.422/.541, 11 HRs)
1B: Justin Smoak, Blue Jays (.294/.360/.594, 23 HRs)
2B: Scooter Gennett, Reds (.311/.363/.603, 15 HRs)
Timeout: Gennett is slugging over .600? Yes, yes is he.
3B: Mike Moustakas, Royals (.270/.304/.559, 25 HRs)
SS: Elvis Andrus, Rangers (.300/.345, .471, 11 HRs)
Timeout: Andrus' career best in home runs was eight. He has 50 RBIs, just 19 short of his career high.
OF: Aaron Judge, Yankees (.329/.448/.691, 30 HRs)
OF: Cody Bellinger, Dodgers (.261/.342/.619, 25 HRs)
UT: Marwin Gonzalez, Astros (.308/.391/.576, 16 HRs)
Timeout: Gonzalez doesn't have enough plate appearances to qualify for the leader boards, but if you lower the cutoff to 200 PAs, the Astros have four of the top 10 hitters in the AL.
First-half awards: Long way to, but here's how I'd vote:
AL MVP: Judge
NL MVP: Scherzer
AL Cy Young: Sale
NL Cy Young: Scherzer
AL Rookie of the Year: Judge
NL Rookie of the Year: Bellinger
AL Manager of the Year: A.J. Hinch
NL Manager of the Year: Dave Roberts
AL Least Valuable Player: Boston Red Sox third basemen