Kershaw shows what they've been missing

WASHINGTON -- Nothing was wrong with the Los Angeles Dodgers' starting pitching, even without Clayton Kershaw.

The remaining pitchers were better than competent, pitching to a 3.04 ERA and limiting opponents to a .247 batting average. Collectively, they were the fourth-best rotation in the National League without the best pitcher on the planet.

Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu both, at times, were perfectly ace-like, and Dan Haren and Josh Beckett looked as if they were re-inventing themselves for the better start by start.

But to say they held the line isn't to say there wasn't something missing, something everyone in the room felt on a daily basis. All along, the plan was to keep a semblance of order so that, when Kershaw returned, and the middle of the batting order got hot, this team would be on the pad for a possible liftoff.

During Tuesday's 8-3 win over the Washington Nationals, Kershaw's first start since hurting his back in Australia on Opening Day, the Dodgers' big left-handed ace brought it all back home.

"He shows you right away what you've been missing, just a guy that brings that to the table every five days," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "It is a little reminder of just who he is and what he means to you."

Kershaw's seven shutout innings -- sprinkled with nine strikeouts and peppered with nine Washington hits -- was a little more reassurance for a team with World Series aspirations that it is, as it always has thought, the best team in its league. But what is the "that" Mattingly was referring to? It's exactly what this Dodgers team has been lacking these past six weeks: a merciless, unrelenting push to be the best on the field every inning of every game.

That, in essence, is what Kershaw brings.

"You don't really see him throw a pitch that doesn't have a true purpose," Mattingly said.

As the Nationals found out, it's not that Kershaw is unhittable. Nobody really is, not for long stretches. The Nationals had some scrappy at-bats against him. In four of Kershaw's seven innings, they got the leadoff man on base. But as they also found out, getting guys on base only makes Kershaw mad, and making him mad only makes him better.

The fourth and sixth innings were the essence of Kershaw's game. Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth were thorns in his side all evening. They both singled leading off those two innings. Never did they score, though, because as usual Kershaw forbade it. One time he picked Rendon off first base. He's celebrated for his pitching, but he doesn't exactly let the small stuff slide. He concentrates in his at-bats and fields his position adeptly.

But when he bears down with his pitches, it's something to see. Scott Hairston and Ian Desmond had to see it far too intimately, that pair striking out to end both of Washington's biggest threats off Kershaw. In the fourth, Kershaw struck out Hairston on four pitches, the last of which was a nasty slider. He struck out Desmond on five pitches, the last of which was a nasty curveball. He reversed things in the sixth, getting Hairston on a curveball and Desmond on a slider.

Kershaw said he felt equally intense pitching with the bases clear as he does with a threat looming, but he acknowledged some of the dynamics shift.

"With guys on base there's probably a little less margin for error. You don't want to give up any runs, so subconsciously, you probably bear down a little more," he said. "I don't really think about it."

That six-week layoff could be a blessing in disguise, particularly since the Dodgers avoided falling into a prolonged slump in Kershaw's absence. No longer do they have to fret so much about monitoring his innings after last season's workload and the team's late run in the playoffs. The Dodgers saw it last season with Zack Greinke, who missed five weeks because of a broken collarbone and roared through the remainder of his season, staying fresh well into October.

Who knows, maybe Greinke and Kershaw will switch roles this season and Greinke will be the Cy Young-winning rotation leader, with Kershaw lending heavy support. But even if that's the case, there probably won't be much discussion about who the leader of the pitching staff is.

"Kersh is just different than a lot of other guys," Mattingly said. "With Kersh, you get a guy who's just going to be all in every day, in every aspect."

So, as of right now, consider the Dodgers all in.