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Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw encouraged heading into season's second half

LOS ANGELES -- Clayton Kershaw was good on Sunday, amid the Dodgers' series-clinching 5-3 victory over the Angels. But he wasn't Clayton Kershaw, three-time Cy Young Award winner. The Dodgers' longtime ace allowed 10 baserunners and grinded through a 6⅔-inning start that would have looked a lot worse had Kenta Maeda not escaped a bases-loaded jam in the seventh inning.

After the game, Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal was asked to identify the element that has eluded Kershaw in his quest for consistent dominance.

Instead, he flipped the question.

"Is he getting hit a lot?" Grandal asked. "Are there barrels?"

Grandal's point -- that the only hard contact against Kershaw on Sunday came from Jefry Marte's fourth-inning three-run homer, which accounted for the only runs the Angels scored -- was one backed up by Dodgers manager Dave Roberts.

"Looking at soft contact, I think, is something that is very tangible for us to look at and dig into," Roberts said, his team now 53-43 and a half-game up on first place heading into the All-Star break despite sitting 10 games under .500 as recently as May 16.

For Kershaw, Roberts said, "the goal is to be peaking in October."

Kershaw believes he is on track for that.

"Trending up is good," Kershaw said. "I definitely feel healthy these last five starts since I got back. I think the endurance and the pitch crispness and the pitch execution and things are a little bit up-and-down, but I think the consistency's coming. Yeah, I think I'm in a good spot to where I'll be ready to go for the rest of the season."

Kershaw was officially charged with three runs on six hits and four walks in his fifth start since coming off his second stint on the disabled list, striking out eight batters in the process. In 75⅔ innings this season -- one hampered by biceps tendinitis and a lower back strain -- Kershaw has struck out 78 batters, walked 18 and posted a 2.74 ERA, rates that still put him among the very best.

At the onset of this series, Angels manager Mike Scioscia said Kershaw "still has the ability to dominate."

But the 30-year-old left-hander began Sunday afternoon by exerting 29 pitches in a stressful first inning. In the fourth, he gave up his first home run in 23-plus innings since returning from the DL. But that home run by Marte -- on a first-pitch, chest-high, 92 mph fastball -- was the only hit the Angels managed in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position against Kershaw. Along the way, Kershaw helped his own cause by contributing an RBI single in the second and picking off opposing pitcher Deck McGuire in the fourth.

The last hitter Kershaw faced was Mike Trout, who worked a six-pitch walk in a seventh-inning plate appearance that included a couple of borderline sliders -- pitches that Kershaw demonstrably pleaded for.

"I thought I made some pretty good pitches, but he's a good hitter for a reason," Kershaw said of Trout. "He takes the ones that are hard to hit."

Kershaw's leash has steadily lengthened since he has returned to the Dodgers, from a pitch count of 55 to 68 to 74 to 89 to 108. The vast majority of his pitches were breaking balls on Sunday, a noticeable trend this season. His fastball hovered between 90 and 92 mph, which also has been the norm.

After Kershaw exited, Maeda -- pitching in relief because the All-Star break would create too long of a layoff -- plunked Justin Upton, then came back to strike out Ian Kinsler and strand three baserunners. It set Maeda up for the win, which meant Kershaw was tagged with a no-decision for the sixth time in 13 starts.

Kershaw's record is merely 3-4, but the rest of his numbers look solid, and his health seems sound.

On one side, Kershaw's final first-half start appeared to be a continual struggle. On the other side, he was basically one pitch away from seven shutout innings.

"I just look at it as a win," Kershaw said. "No sides."