LOS ANGELES -- Before Saturday night's game, as Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly talked with reporters amid what at the time was a four-game losing streak, he was asked if it was reassuring to know that the team's "stopper," referring to left-hander Clayton Kershaw, was about to take the mound. It was an intriguing question, and made me wonder whether Kershaw was deserving of the title.
But as Kershaw demonstrated in the Dodgers' fifth consecutive defeat -- this time 9-2 to the St. Louis Cardinals -- he isn't there yet.
A stopper doesn't get himself yanked from a game after 4 2/3 innings, or throw 111 pitches in such a short time. Kershaw issued five walks, one short of his career high and one more than he had walked in three previous starts combined. He walked the opposing pitcher on four pitches with two outs and nobody on, something that wound up costing him a run.
Kershaw committed every one of those sins in a game the Dodgers (6-9) probably had to win in order to avoid a four-game sweep by the Cardinals, who will send their own stopper, Chris Carpenter, to the hill for Sunday's finale.
In Kershaw's defense, the Cardinals were particularly adept at fouling off pitches and prolonging at-bats Saturday, and when it came to being adept at prolonging at-bats, so was plate umpire Joe West. One night after Chad Fairchild rang up five Dodgers hitters, two of them on balls that appeared to be well off the plate, West seemed to go the opposite way.
To his credit, Kershaw didn't bemoan that after the game.
"There is no point talking about it now," he said. "It's one of those things. I walked too many guys and threw too many pitches."
The Dodgers have tried to craft the image of Kershaw as an ace, and since they passed on a still-available Tim Lincecum to take Kershaw with their first pick (seventh overall) in the 2006 amateur draft, it's easy to understand why. Mattingly was so sure Kershaw deserved Opening Day starter status that he anointed him before the first workout of spring training.
At times this season, Kershaw (2-2) has looked worthy of that status. He turned in seven shutout innings in that opener to outpitch, and ultimately defeat, Lincecum. He delivered another masterpiece last Monday night in San Francisco, this time with 6 2/3 shutout innings. And he was adequate in his previous loss, on April 5 at Colorado.
But against the Cardinals, well, Kershaw wasn't very good. Mattingly tried to go as long as he could with him, and probably went longer than he should have. In the bottom of the fourth, with the Dodgers trying to muster a rally, outfielder Xavier Paul was on deck to hit for Kershaw, but Aaron Miles grounded out.
So Kershaw, with the Dodgers trailing 2-1, went back out for the fifth. The final pitch he threw, to Cardinals right fielder Allen Craig, was blasted over the leftfield wall for a three-run homer, putting the Dodgers and their anemic offense down by four runs.
"I definitely want to be that guy who can get my team out of it," Kershaw said. "It's something you take pride in. You want to be the guy who stops the bleeding. Unfortunately, tonight, I just kind of kept it bleeding."
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.