LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly is used to Clayton Kershaw’s angry reactions when Kershaw is taken out of games. There have been plenty of times Kershaw stomped off the mound or turned his back in disgust.
Yet even Mattingly was a little surprised to get a face full of a very sweaty, very angry left-hander in the fifth inning of Thursday’s game.
Kershaw, his face right up in Mattingly’s, jabbed the air angrily as he made his points, which no doubt included the fact he already had one of the Dodgers’ three hits off Patrick Corbin and that had thrown just 80 pitches.
But Mattingly stuck with his game plan, sending pinch hitter Austin Barnes up there and, for one of the few times this season, Kershaw’s teammates bailed him out of a mess. They rallied for six runs in the inning, the big blast Chris Heisey’s grand slam, in a 6-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks that reduced their magic number to win the NL West to four.
It also made it a lot easier for the Dodgers to spin Thursday’s tantrum as an example of Kershaw’s passion for the game and fiery leadership. Then again, it’s more than spin. It certainly looked like the Dodgers played with more urgency after Kershaw’s explosion, just as they went 18-5 immediately after he told reporters last month that the team needed to play with more urgency in Houston, when they were drifting along, apparently going nowhere.
Hours after the dugout confrontation, Mattingly said he had no hurt feelings left over from the exchange and that he’s pretty sure Kershaw doesn't, either.
“He’s a leader on our club,” Mattingly said.
Kershaw wouldn’t talk about the argument at all, saying it was between himself and Mattingly. He said he was grateful his teammates bailed him out on a day he had a “terrible” curveball. One of those curveballs hung in the air so long, Brandon Drury hit it out of the ballpark as easily as if it were on a tee. Then again, even on a day when everything was a struggle, Kershaw struck out nine batters in five innings, giving him a sliver of a chance to reach 300. No one in baseball has done that in 13 years.
“I felt pretty crummy after that,” Kershaw said. “For those guys to step up like that. ... Heisey, he’s such a gamer, I love Heis, for him to do that after the kind of year he’s had, it’s unbelievable. I’m thankful, honestly.”
Heisey, who has been up and down and over and out this season for the Dodgers -- shuttled back and forth between Triple-A, then released and reclaimed from the Toronto Blue Jays -- was curious enough about the argument that he got right up in it. Heisey and Kershaw knew each other well before the Dodgers traded with the Cincinnati Reds to acquire Heisey in the offseason.
“I was intent on listening to what he had to say. He’s the best pitcher in baseball, and I love it that he doesn’t want to come out of the game, but I also respect the coaches’ decision to get him out of there,” Heisey said. “We were down 3-0. You can save his arm a little bit, but you can’t ever argue with the competitive spirit he has. You want to play behind a guy and play with a guy who cares that much.”
One could argue that Kershaw at times cares too much. Perhaps his intermittent struggles in the playoffs are a result of getting too emotional about the outcome. But he is the emotional leader of the team and, just as Jimmy Rollins’ intelligence -- a bunt for a single to spark a rally -- seemed to shake the Dodgers out of the doldrums Wednesday, Kershaw’s emotional outburst seemed to do it Thursday.
The pinch hitter, Barnes, made two outs in the inning, something Kershaw could no doubt have done. But the Dodgers and Mattingly ended up looking smart anyway because they won the game, Kershaw (15-7) even got the win and they even managed to save 10-20 pitches of strain on his left arm. They’re going to need that arm to be as fresh as possible in a couple of weeks.