Clayton Kershaw fills leadership void

SAN FRANCISCO -- The St. Louis Cardinals treated one of the Los Angeles Dodgers' best hitters like a dartboard. Clayton Kershaw took care of that.

The San Francisco Giants seemed to have regained the momentum in the NL West race and might have seized a bit more by adding a veteran pitcher in Jake Peavy to their mix before the trade deadline. Clayton Kershaw took care of that.

There is an old saw in baseball that a starting pitcher can't be the team's leader because he only participates in 20 percent of its games, which carries a ring of truth to it. Yet Kershaw certainly looks to be the man the Dodgers take their cues from, at least when they're looking their most formidable.

The Dodgers have dominated the Giants in the first two games of this series mostly because Kershaw and Zack Greinke have held the Giants scoreless in 16 of the 18 innings the teams have vied for. Granted, the Dodgers' lineup has looked vastly more menacing with Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez back in it, and the outfield has looked more competent with Puig in center.

But the Dodgers are a pitching-first team, and Dodgers pitching is a Kershaw-first phenomenon. He could pitch well in a phone booth, but put him on the mound at a cool, breezy bayside stadium with big outfield gaps, and the other team's hitters might as well close their eyes and swing as hard as they can. Maybe they'll get lucky. Nothing else seems to be working. Kershaw has a 0.69 ERA at AT&T Park.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly has noticed other teams' approaches to Kershaw and, at times, Greinke: Swing early when they are trying to get ahead, avoid deep counts where their devastating off-speed comes into play, and perhaps score early in the game and hope your pitchers can do the rest.

"When you do that and you don't [score], you end up with a low pitch count, and you end up getting a full dose of our guys," Mattingly said. "I can't say it's a bad plan, but it's a dangerous one."

The Giants got a full dose of Kershaw on Saturday evening: nine scoreless innings in which they mustered three baserunners. It was absolute domination and you could argue in good faith that it was his fourth-best outing this season. There was that near-perfect no-hitter on June 18, perhaps the best-pitched game in history; the eight scoreless at Coors Field; the 11-strikeout game against San Diego.

This one, of course, carried the most import, slipping the Dodgers quietly back into first place in the NL West.

And all along, Kershaw has operated with a relentless edge that the Dodgers, when they're at their most coldly efficient, seem to emulate. Teams have been throwing inside to Ramirez relentlessly lately. In the game in which Ramirez was hit twice by pitches in St. Louis, Kershaw stuck a fastball under Matt Holliday's numbers. It wasn't personal, just business.

Somebody asked Kershaw how much "fun" he has been having during the run he is on. He leads the majors with a 1.76 ERA, a 0.80 WHIP and a .503 opponents OPS.

"It's fun to win. It's not fun to lose," he said. "It's pretty much a start-to-start thing for me. I'm happy right now and, if I lose the next one, I won't be. That's pretty much how it goes."

There may be a bit of a leadership void on this team that Kershaw has stepped into. Puig is in only his second full season and still has lapses in judgment. Ramirez has trouble staying healthy and can have a brooding presence in the clubhouse. Matt Kemp has taken his unhappiness with his position switch public through his agent, never a way to win points with teammates. Adrian Gonzalez is having a down year and Juan Uribe has never been an elite player.

But every fifth day, the Dodgers look like the team nobody wants to face and everyone should want to play for.