PITTSBURGH -- Get some rest, Clayton Kershaw. Your superpowers will be needed yet again.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are nearly three months into their season, and they continue to wobble. That is, everybody except the National League’s best pitcher, Kershaw, who has delivered a season full of excellence, save one measly inning.
The Dodgers rolled into Pittsburgh this week high on a six-game win streak, including a three-game sweep of the first-place Washington Nationals. Now they are stumbling into another Kershaw Sunday start, losers of two straight to the previously wounded Pittsburgh Pirates, who had lost 13 of their past 15 before this matchup.
The Dodgers’ 6-1 defeat to the Pirates on Saturday came the day after an 8-6 defeat that left L.A. bobbing about chin-high in the nearby Allegheny River.
Signs that the 41-35 Dodgers are destined to be a .500 club are everywhere. It’s in the once vulnerable bullpen that has turned dependable but now looks stretched thin. It’s in a starting rotation that can’t keep five suitable pitchers healthy. It is most definitely in an offense that has yet to find its way.
Here’s another nugget of the mediocrity: Kershaw has made seven starts after a Dodgers’ defeat and seven after a Dodgers’ victory. In Kershaw’s 15 starts this season, the Dodgers have won 14 times. The only stain on his silk tie is the April 25 outing against the Miami Marlins, in which he gave up five runs in the sixth inning. Take that one inning out of the mix, and Kershaw’s ERA goes from 1.57 to 1.18.
The Dodgers have needed every bit of that excellence, for the most part. They have won a one-run game six times in Kershaw’s starts, including two of the past three.
“We ask a lot of [Kershaw],” catcher A.J. Ellis said. “It seems like every time he takes the mound, it’s a game we need to kind of get going again. I think winning streak, losing streak, however you’re playing, Clayton approaches every game the same, and that’s what makes him great.”
Now the Dodgers need Kershaw to step up again, just to give them a chance at a four-game series split Monday. The .500 symbolism is everywhere.
On Saturday, his only struggle came when facing Andrew McCutchen. The four runs Maeda gave up over five-plus innings all came on two McCutchen home runs. In fact, Maeda’s outing unraveled in a hurry, when he led off the sixth inning with a walk to John Jaso, a single to Starling Marte and McCutchen’s second long ball. His day was done right there.
“They were both situations where I fell behind in the count, and he took advantage of mistakes,” Maeda said through an interpreter. “Ideally, I should have been ahead of the count, but I wasn’t able to execute my game plan.”
The Maeda outing meant the Dodgers' bullpen was asked to deliver four more innings a day after giving five innings to the cause.
“I thought I did pretty well before the sixth inning,” Maeda said. “I needed to start off well in that inning. I walked a batter, base hit, and I couldn’t control the damage.”
Maeda said he rushed himself in warming up before the sixth inning. Ellis surmised that because Maeda was on base in the top of the inning, his timing was off leading into the sixth. Too often, the Dodgers have been balancing themselves precariously on the ledge, only to fall.
Once again, it leads back to leaning on Kershaw to fix a mess. Nobody in baseball is as dependable as the left-hander, who leads the major leagues with 115 innings. He doesn’t just fix losing streaks; he heals tired bullpen arms.
“I think that’s all that Clayton has known,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He’s going to go out there and not let the usage of the bullpen affect his start. And I think that every time he takes the mound, he’s looking to go nine. I don’t think it is of any concern for him.”
Kershaw actually has not gone nine innings in any start in June, one month after he won NL Pitcher of the Month honors, but his performance isn’t much of a downgrade. He has a 1.59 ERA in four June starts, compared to his 0.91 mark in May.
If getting a starter to go at least six innings is the medicine the Dodgers need to start the slow healing process, the right guy will be on the mound Sunday.
“My job is to go deep into the game and give my team the best shot to win,” Maeda said in lamenting his short start. “Yes, it is frustrating to not be able to do the job.”