Lost in all the excitement: Clayton Kershaw takes a step forward

SAN FRANCISCO -- When all the acrimony over what may have been a blown call settles and the Los Angeles Dodgers find out how seriously catcher A.J. Ellis is hurt, they'll probably have time to let the most important aspect of Wednesday night's game sink in.

Clayton Kershaw was Clayton Kershaw again.

At first, he wasn't, exactly, after he gave up a hit and a walk, then allowed Madison Bumgarner to get down a bunt and got some bad luck as both runners scored in the third inning. But from that moment on -- or maybe it was the moment when Kershaw bounced a slider to Brandon Belt and yelled at himself before catching Ellis' throw with his bare hand out of anger -- he was that guy again.

Kershaw went on a run of six strikeouts in a seven-batter sequence and, if not for a situation that practically demanded a pinch hitter, he probably could have gone at least another inning in what turned out to be a six-inning, nine-strikeout performance in a 3-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants. He seemed to exchange some words with manager Don Mattingly in the dugout, but it was hard to argue with Mattingly's call later, considering the pinch hitter, Alex Guerrero, hit a game-tying home run.

The takeaway is this: Kershaw figured out how to throw his devastating slider again and most of the Giants who faced him were defenseless against it, as they usually are to anything Kershaw throws at them. Kershaw's six innings were the fewest he had thrown in a start at AT&T Park, ever. That tells you how good he has been against the Dodgers' archrivals.

"He got into that old rhythm of the Clayton we saw last year. He had all his pitches working," Ellis said. "It was great to see his slider kind of evolve throughout the course of the night. I know it's a pitch he's been kind of arm wrestling with and, to see him turn a corner with that, was really good to see."

The storyline coming into Wednesday was Kershaw versus Bumgarner, the game's best regular-season pitcher against the game's reigning postseason ace. They pitched to a stalemate, each allowing two runs, Kershaw allowing three fewer hits and striking out three more, but Bumgarner getting an extra out.

Kershaw has yet to get through the seventh inning in his four starts this season, and a lack of length from the Dodgers' rotation is one of the reasons the new front office has been burning up the transaction wires trying to find enough bullpen depth both for the major league team and to stash at Triple-A.

"There was some improvement, so I guess that's good," Kershaw said. "I'm tired of going six innings. Obviously, if we're going to get two-run pinch-hit home runs, I understand, but I want to get deeper into games. I'm tired of just going six. It's frustrating to leave that many to your bullpen."