Not quite a perfect 10, as Clayton Kershaw grinds one out

ATLANTA -- Clayton Kershaw hardly had his best stuff Thursday and yet he still managed to give the Dodgers exactly what they needed.

Such is the life of what is probably the best pitcher in baseball right now.

The Dodgers’ ace went eight innings, giving up just one run while throwing 116 pitches, in a 2-1, 10-inning win over the Braves. A deeper look into his pitching line reveals that he gave up 10 hits while striking out 10, the first time he was in double digits in both categories in a single start.

“Weird day,” Kershaw said. “You give up a bunch of runs and give up 10 hits, you say you got shelled. You don’t give up a bunch of runs and you give up 10 hits, you scattered it, as they say. It was just a weird deal. Five hits in the first two innings, you just turn the page after that. You really look at it as two games almost.”

His two-games-in-one adventure was helped by a dazzling double play in the second inning started by second baseman Chase Utley. Kershaw loaded the bases with nobody out but struck out Mallex Smith. Pitcher Matt Wisler then hit a shot up the middle, but Utley made a sliding grab to his right and started the double play that ended the threat.

“The play by Chase, that double-play ball was a game-changer,” manager Dave Roberts said. “We made some plays defensively out there for Clayton, but every time he takes the mound we feel good.”

It was just the second time in his career Kershaw had loaded the bases with nobody out and not given up a run. He has allowed at least a run on 11 other occasions.

The Dodgers’ entire road-trip strategy was teetering on the brink at that moment. The bullpen had to absorb more than 10 innings in the first two games of the Braves series, with a trip to Colorado looming. Bullpens typically are on high alert in the Rockies’ home park.

Kershaw was supposed to be the bridge from the recent heavy bullpen use in Atlanta to the start of the series at Colorado by giving the relievers a breather Thursday. It was shaky at first, but ultimately that rest did come as only Chris Hatcher and Kenley Jansen were needed for one inning apiece in the series finale against the Braves. Jansen finished off the 10th inning for his seventh save in seven chances.

How unusual was Kershaw’s 10-10 starter vision on Thursday? He became the first Dodgers pitcher to give up at least 10 hits while striking out at least 10 since Hideo Nomo in 1997.

And the outing even included what appeared to be an eephus pitch to the Braves’ Tyler Flowers in the fourth inning. Kershaw later conceded it was not a slow trick pitch in order to get the red-hot Flowers off-balance.

“A lot going on in the old skull on that one,” Kershaw said. “Tyler was taking a little bit of time so I was going to quick pitch him. I got what I wanted. He wasn’t ready and [umpire] Angel [Hernandez] didn’t call time. But then he got ready really quickly. Then [catcher] A.J. [Ellis] called a different pitch. I was just going to throw a fastball, but I didn’t want to cross up A.J. if [Flowers] took it. And I didn’t want to throw a fastball so I was like, ‘OK, he won,’ so I just lobbed it up there.”

The pitch was a ball. The at-bat ended with a Kershaw strikeout. It was that kind of day.

Kershaw’s workmanlike day ultimately gave his own struggling offense time to cobble together a run. Yasmani Grandal, who entered the game in the eighth inning, delivered a 10th-inning double to give the Dodgers the lead for good.

In both of the Dodgers’ victories in the series, they didn’t get their first lead until the 10th inning.

“I wasn’t behind home plate for the whole game, but he was Kershaw,” Grandal said. “They were aggressive early on him and were able to get things going, but he’s that good that he was able to minimize the damage.”

Kershaw even reached base on an error and nearly scored, but replay did not overturn a close call at the plate in the seventh.

“It was a grind for sure,” Kershaw said. “They had a good game plan. They swung at the first heater they saw, and they got hits in the first few innings. They came out ready to go and I had to adjust from there. I made some better pitches the last few innings there. It wasn’t easy today, but I’m glad I got to make it through eight the way the bullpen had been used.”