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Clayton Kershaw is getting closer, not yet there

LOS ANGELES -- Clayton Kershaw has made five starts so far this season. Twice the opposing pitcher was Madison Bumgarner and once the opposing pitcher was James Shields. He has seen hits defying shifts and his fielders letting him down on occasion. On Tuesday, he took the field backed up by a lineup of players who have spent a good deal of their working hours at Triple-A stadiums in recent seasons.

So, is it really any wonder the best pitcher in the National League is going to finish April with a 1-2 record?

Well, yeah, it is, kind of by definition. Kershaw, the four-time major-league ERA leader, is making strides, but he hasn't quite had that moment of utter domination when Dodgers fans can breathe easy that Kershaw is, once again, Kershaw. It hasn't yet looked easy, and so much of 2014 looked as if he were pitching in air and the hitters were swinging underwater.

Whether 2014 was simply an unfair bar or whether Kershaw really is trying to get it back in order might not be apparent for a while. But Kershaw was making no excuses for this somewhat sluggish first month, which he will finish with a 3.73 ERA, identical to Bumgarner's. The difference between those two guys' months is that, both times the NL West's elite left-handed pitchers hooked up, the San Francisco Giants got the win.

The Giants took Tuesday's game 2-1 behind Bumgarner's eight dominant innings, Kershaw's seven strong innings reduced to a footnote.

"I gave up two, he gave up one, he pitched eight innings, I pitched seven, so yeah, I got outpitched," Kershaw said.

Just before that fairly objective summation, Kershaw said, "Madison pitched better than I did and they won the game, so not a whole lot of analyzation going on."

Kershaw normally leaves that to others anyway unless a thorough self-analysis is the only way to get himself out of a funk. When he first returned from the disabled list last season, he had some issues with his curveball, had one awful outing in Arizona and a few sub-par ones, but fixed whatever he had to fix and rolled into a historically great season, at least until October dawned. He has admitted to not having his slider where he wants it so far this season, but said he feels as if it is getting closer to where he wants it.

He said his overall command has improved, his walk totals are declining and he's getting a better feel for how to work on the inside corner.

"I think he's just getting better and better as the season's going on. I think that's the one thing we see," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "There are years when guys get runs and years when they don't. You never know who you're going to match up with."

One positive result from Tuesday: Kershaw got through seven innings, something he hadn't yet achieved in his four previous starts. The Dodgers' bullpen has been far better than most people expected, but it has also been far more prevalent than most people expected because the starters have been ceding too many innings to it. Now, the Dodgers are missing Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy, both on the disabled list -- McCarthy until around midseason 2016 -- so the burden on Kershaw and Zack Greinke only grows heavier.

And somebody actually asked Kershaw whether he'd want to square off against Bumgarner 30 times a year.

"No," he said. "I'd rather win 30 times a year."