Clayton Kershaw is now among the elite

SAN FRANCISCO -- I've been resisting the urge to do this for a few weeks now, maybe even all season. But it became clear Wednesday, during the late innings of a game that was so riveting it almost made you forget you were watching a first-place team trying to return to the World Series against a last-place team just trying to get through what is left of a dreary season.

Clayton Kershaw may now be counted -- strike that, must now be counted -- as one of the best starting pitchers in the majors.

He can hang with Roy Halladay, with Cliff Lee, with CC Sabathia, with Josh Beckett, with Jered Weaver. And yes, he can hang with Tim Lincecum, the San Francisco Giants' two-time defending Cy Young Award winner, whom he beat for the second time this season, 1-0 before a sellout crowd of 42,487 at AT&T Park.

In those two Kershaw-Lincecum showdowns, the first of which came in that long-ago season opener when the Dodgers were still in possession of that precious commodity known as hope, Kershaw has pitched 15 shutout innings, given up seven hits and compiled 21 of his now major league-leading 167 strikeouts. Lincecum has given up a total of two runs, one of which was unearned, in those two starts and lost both of them.

It was right around the eighth inning Wednesday, when Kershaw was dropping a 3-2 slider onto the inner black to strike out Andres Torres, perhaps the nastiest pitch Kershaw would throw in what was arguably his most memorable performance of the season, that I finally gave in to the increasingly obvious conclusion that Kershaw isn't an up-and-comer anymore. He is an already-here and a not-going-away-anytime-soon.

We saw it in the two wins over Lincecum. We saw it June 26, when he held his own against Los Angeles Angels ace Jered Weaver. We saw it in the All-Star Game, when Kershaw fairly dominated David Ortiz, Robinson Cano and Alex Avila in a perfect inning.

We will see it again in the future. Many times. Countless times. And maybe we will even see it at a time when the Dodgers are a healthy franchise and a competitive team, at a time when it will actually matter.

"Clayton was ridiculous again," Lincecum said. "I think he has reached his potential, just from watching him."

Frankly, in the hours leading up to this game, it was tough to get pumped for this pitching matchup for the ages. The Dodgers had lost four in a row, and with their offense still in the deep freeze, they fired hitting coach Jeff Pentland on Tuesday night and announced it the next morning. So the beat writers spent most of our pregame time chasing that story, leaving us little time to think about the Lincecum-Kershaw rematch until it started.

It wasn't until much later that I really realized what we were seeing.

The Giants left a couple of guys on third base in the first two innings, both of whom had gotten there when catcher Dioner Navarro had thrown the ball into center field trying to cut them down stealing second -- Navarro later would provide the game's only run with a seventh-inning home run into McCovey Cove off a tiring Lincecum. But by the third, Kershaw had begun to dominate. Only three more Giants batters would reach base, Chris Stewart singling twice and Brandon Belt reaching on Jamey Carroll's error, until Kershaw was lifted for a pinch hitter in the top of the ninth.

That was another subplot. Kershaw had thrown 111 pitches, and the Giants had given no indication they were ever going to get to him. But with the Dodgers having little to play for, manager Don Mattingly wasn't going to push the envelope with Kershaw, and he later said he would have made the same decision to lift him even if Kershaw's spot in the order hadn't come up in the ninth.

"I just wanted to be wise and not push him to the point where we took any chances with him," Mattingly said.

Kershaw declined to comment after the game on Mattingly's decision to remove him, but Mattingly admitted Kershaw had pleaded his case to stay in. Ultimately, though, Mattingly went the conservative route, if you can call bringing in a rookie to face the heart of the Giants' order with a one-run lead in the ninth conservative.

Anyway, Javy Guerra set the Giants down in order for his sixth save, and the Dodgers went home after a 2-4 trip to start the second half.

Kershaw missed a chance at his third shutout of the season. But what Kershaw did against the Giants actually had just as much of an impact on a jaded, veteran baseball writer who previously had resisted giving him his props.

There no longer is any denying this is one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. And if there is anyone left who hasn't figured that out, they haven't been paying attention -- although granted, the team for which Kershaw pitches isn't exactly commanding a lot of attention these days.

"Clayton likes pitching in these big games," said Mattingly, who named Kershaw the Dodgers' Opening Day starter on the day pitchers reported to camp. "That was why, really, so early in spring training, he was such an easy pick for that first game."

If Kershaw keeps pitching like this, keeps building on his 11-4 record and 2.72 ERA, he also could become an easy pick for the National League Cy Young Award.

So maybe there is a reason to keep watching these Dodgers after all. Or at least a reason to watch them every fifth day.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.