SAN FRANCISCO -- There will come a time, maybe five days from now, maybe three weeks from now, maybe seven months from now, when Clayton Kershaw will struggle. It happens to all of them, even to him. It’s not hard to imagine; it’s just hard to remember what it looks like.
Of all the things to marvel over in this season for the ages -- and the statistics alone speak to it so poetically -- it’s the ridiculous consistency, the redundancy of his dominance, which has been so extraordinary to those who have been around it every day.
“I almost kind of feel bad for him,” Los Angeles Dodgers veteran pitcher Dan Haren said. “Everyone just expects him to win, everyone just expects him to go out there and throw eight or nine innings and give up zero or one run. That must be quite the burden to put on him, but obviously it doesn’t seem to bother him.”
If it does, we might not know it until his autobiography comes out in the afterglow of his playing days. Kershaw remained on his maniacal mission to achieve greatness with his most meaningful start of 2014, another eight strong innings and another win, this one by a 4-2 score.
He’s a ridiculous 19-3 with a ridiculous 1.70 ERA. His team is suddenly a viable World Series contender again. And those things are far, far from unrelated.
He had to fight hard for this one. He had to fight the San Francisco Giants, scrappy as ever. And for a minute or two, he even had to fight his own manager, who ambled out to the mound in the eighth inning fully intent on taking the pitcher out of the game after Kershaw had thrown his 105th pitch and gotten Joe Panik to ground harmlessly back to the mound on one pitch.
Between innings, Kershaw had told Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, “I can get Panik,” which led the manager to believe he was too tired to face Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, right-handed batters with power. But Kershaw had changed his tune by the time Mattingly reached the mound.
“I just didn’t communicate well what I was thinking,” Kershaw said later.
“At that point, who am I to stop him? Just stay out of the way,” Mattingly said.
So, Mattingly walked back to the dugout without signaling for Brian Wilson, and Kershaw did what he usually does in those situations. He reached deep, he paused and he attacked. He struck out Posey on three nasty sliders, the last of which bounced, and then got Pence to fly out. Just like that, with six throws he had pitched his seventh straight outing of eight innings or more.
Posey had ripped an RBI single off Kershaw in the third inning and lined hard to center in the sixth, but Kershaw said it’s “never personal” when he’s facing the Giants’ best player. Mattingly sees it a bit differently.
“We kind of call him ‘The Big Train,’ because he just keeps coming,” Mattingly said. “Even though Posey had hit a couple balls and squared him up, we knew he was going to still be on the attack. That doesn’t always mean just throwing guys pitches to hit, it means he’s going to go after him and he’s trying to throw strikes or use his pitches. I think everything’s personal with him.”
The Giants did their usual thing, scrapping and clawing in their at-bats, so Kershaw didn’t have his usual clinical efficiency.
His pitch count topped 100 during a stressful seventh inning, but he still had his feet under him firmly enough to strike out Gregor Blanco on a 95-mph fastball with his 102nd pitch.
Simple physical fitness is a part of Kershaw’s game, as well. Asked how he felt at that part of the game, he said, “I felt fine. Normal.”
The Dodgers certainly feel fine on Kershaw days. It’s a feeling that tends to linger longer than one day. They were in a state of semicrisis after Friday night’s 9-0 blowout here because pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu had injured his shoulder. Zack Greinke and Kershaw allow the Dodgers to leave San Francisco feeling like they’re in a commanding position to win the NL West now that they are three games up with 13 left.
“When he takes the mound, I think there’s just a looseness in the clubhouse, just a feeling that we’re going to win,” Haren said.
The micro view of Kershaw’s consistency is this: He has made 21 straight starts allowing three runs or fewer. The Dodgers always have a chance, and they almost always win. Only two other pitchers in the past 15 years have pulled that off. The macro view? He has a 0.29 edge over the Chicago White Sox’s Chris Sale for the major league ERA title. If he wins it -- and it’s hard to imagine him not -- he would become the first pitcher to win four straight MLB ERA titles ever.
Yes, the first ever. Cy Young didn’t do it. Christy Mathewson didn’t do it. The original “Big Train,” Walter Johnson, didn’t do it. Sandy Koufax didn’t even do it, though he came awfully close. Koufax won five straight NL ERA titles, but was edged out by the Los Angeles Angels’ Dean Chance in 1964.
Koufax’s ERA that year was 1.74. Chance’s was 1.65. The two leagues shared one Cy Young award back then, and Chance got it. They might as well do so now. Kershaw would be a lock to win it anyway.
Haren played with Cy Young winner Brandon Webb in Arizona the season Webb won his first nine starts, becoming the first pitcher to do that in 23 years.
“This is on another level,” Haren said of Kershaw. “This has lasted all year. You see hot runs by pitchers, but it’s been unbelievable watching him.”
Haren provides an interesting perspective on the best pitcher in the game. Like Kershaw, he relies on pinpoint command. Unlike Kershaw, he has to rely on a fastball that rarely bumps up against 90 mph. Haren once threw nearly as hard as Kershaw, however, and he knows what a little extra oomph does for the rest of a pitcher’s repertoire. The Dodgers’ two hottest starting pitchers are at decidedly different moments in their careers.
“He throws hard enough that people have to cheat with his fastball. And once you do that, any of his off-speed pitches are lethal,” Haren said.
Kershaw can pitch only every five days. The Dodgers, at least for now, have no plans to use him on short rest. Greinke can pitch only every five days. If anything, the Dodgers will look to get Greinke -- and his balky right elbow -- a little extra rest. Hyun-Jin Ryu will miss his next start and, after he gets an MRI on his sore left shoulder Monday, could miss a lot more than that.
Haren has been a top-of-the-rotation starter. He knows the burden that comes with that, and he has embraced the opportunity to be someone the Dodgers rely on once again. He said he took it hard in July when it felt as if the Dodgers won every game Kershaw, Greinke or Ryu started and lost every game they didn’t. Haren has pitched four consecutive strong outings.
Haren (13-10) pitches Tuesday in Colorado and again Sunday in Chicago. At some point in that start at Wrigley Field, Haren will likely pass the 180-inning barrier (he’s only eight innings away) that will trigger a $10 million player option for next season. Should he trigger it, Haren said, there’s no guarantee he’ll pick it up. Josh Beckett already has hinted strongly that 2014 was his final season. Haren, 33, is a year younger but has worked more than 200 more innings than Beckett and said he, too, is considering retirement.
“There have been times the last few years when I’ve thought, ‘Man, I don’t know if I want to do this anymore,’” Haren said. “But I think that is a natural feeling for anybody getting up there in age and innings and stuff. I see a guy like A.J. Burnett, who says he’s going to retire all the time. But then he’ll go out and throw seven innings and strike out 14 guys and, you know, then you feel like, ‘Man, should I really retire if I can do this?’
“You have to ride the wave of emotions throughout the course of the season, and I don’t think it’s right to make any decision in the season. Whether games are going good or bad, I think it’s better to just wait.”
It’s usually about pitching for the Dodgers, and right now they have the best performer in the game operating at his maximum efficiency. They also have an aging pitcher who realizes there’s a fine line between on-point proficiency and getting embarrassed. He has to walk it every five days. As long as those two story lines stay positive, the Dodgers should be in good shape.