<
>

Clayton Kershaw notches 20 the hard way

CHICAGO -- By the time the Los Angeles Dodgers had scored six runs on five hits, forced a pitching change and waited out Chicago Cubs trainers while they checked catcher Welington Castillo's bruised ribs, Clayton Kershaw had spent about 30 minutes cooling down from his pregame routine and watching from the bench, antsy as always.

"I'm going to have to figure out ways to stay loose," Kershaw said. "Obviously, Wrigley's not the easiest place -- not a lot of places to go -- but I'll probably have to go up the tunnel or somewhere else and get loose again."

Kershaw said he would be willing to sit around for two hours if it meant his team jumping out to a 6-0 lead, but the long Dodgers' first inning en route to a 14-5 win over the Cubs didn't make for the most elegant Kershaw performance. It was a 106-pitch grind with the wind blowing toward the lake. It was five innings the hard way. His fastball darted to unexpected places, and his breaking balls weren't breaking, but forgive his teammates if they weren't exactly rolling their eyes after Kershaw won his 20th game via a relative cheapie: five so-so but willful innings with a ton of run support.

It's fair to say Kershaw has a bit of good will in the bank with anybody who feels fondly about the Dodgers. He punctuated their season with that brilliant June no-hitter, had worked eight or nine innings in his previous seven outings and rescued this Dodgers season from the label of extravagant mediocrity, after all.

Years from now, all anybody is going to see are the marvelous -- borderline ridiculous -- numbers he put up in 2014. Kershaw joined Pedro Martinez (1999) as the only pitchers since World War II to pick up 20 wins in fewer than 30 starts. Kershaw (20-3) has taken the mound only 26 times this season, and the Dodgers have won 22 of those times. They're 19-1 in his past 20 starts, which has pulled them to the brink of postseason inclusion and put them in sturdy shape with a three-game lead in the NL West.

A pitcher's win-loss record doesn't necessarily paint a detailed portrait of his performance over a season. It has, in fact, become fashionable to label it a worthless measure, but that viewpoint isn't universal. To disdain wins sort of severs a bridge to the past. Who knows, somebody's dad or grandfather might like talking about the year Sandy Koufax won 27. Now a kid in 2014 can talk about the time Kershaw won 20 or 21 in just 27 tries.

"From my childhood, I remember you hear about Baltimore's five [actually, four] 20-game winners and stuff like that," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "That's a landmark. It's like 100 RBIs for a hitter. Twenty wins, I think, is something we've always put out there as a landmark and a great year."

If things go according to the Dodgers' plan, Kershaw will make his final regular-season start Wednesday against the second-place San Francisco Giants. After that, he'll pitch the first game of their postseason series, which they're hoping is the National League Division Series. At some point, Kershaw has said, he'll stop and take stock of what he has accomplished this season. By most accounts, he has pitched one of the 20 greatest seasons of the past 50 years.

"I've always said wins are a team stat, and 20 is something that's a benchmark for a starting pitcher -- kind of a cool thing -- but you saw today," Kershaw said. "Obviously, I wasn't great, and we scored 14 runs. Years happen like that. I don't take it for granted. It's obviously awesome, huge honor, but it's a team thing. We've been scoring runs when I'm pitching, and luckily, I've been out there on the right days."

That might be pouring the humility on a bit strong, but some of Kershaw's most heartfelt comments after Friday's start were reserved for catcher A.J. Ellis, his close friend and co-conspirator in making the rest of the league look foolish. Even after his two-home-run day Friday, Ellis -- who had in-season knee surgery followed closely by a sprained ankle -- is batting only .193. Maybe the Dodgers should listen to Kershaw if they decide this winter to non-tender Ellis, who will be entering his third season of arbitration.

"A.J. does so much work for me," Kershaw said. "It's a selfless job, catching. It's his fault when I pitch bad, and I'll take the credit when we win. He comes every day and prepares, gets ready for me and my mood swings [and] getting mad at him, and he puts up with all of it, calms me down, calls the right pitches. There's just a confidence back there that I try not to take for granted but probably do."