Even a three-time Cy Young Award winner with a Roberto Clemente Award, a $215 million contract and a spotless regular-season résumé isn't immune from the occasional bout of mediocrity.
Clayton Kershaw, who has laid a Cooperstown-worthy foundation in parts of eight seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, took a rare hiatus from regular-season dominance in April and May. Nine starts into this season, he was 2-3 with a 4.32 ERA, and the unthinkable was looking like a reality: As the All-Star Game approached, it appeared that Kershaw might spend the break grilling out and watching teammates Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez, Yasmani Grandal and Joc Pederson tip their caps to the crowd at Great American Ball Park.
Kershaw ultimately turned things around in time to join Sandy Koufax and Fernando Valenzuela as the only Dodgers pitchers to make five straight All-Star teams. With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that his problems were minor and eminently resolvable. He just needed a little time to shake a mild case of home run-itis and the burden of excessive expectations.
"He's kind of spoiled people because of how he's performed," said Grandal, the Dodgers' starting catcher. "The stuff was there. But when he was missing, he was missing over the plate, and you don't want to do that. Other than that, he was the same old Kershaw. Nothing was wrong with him. He's human and he's going to make mistakes sometimes."
In theory, anyway.
When the Dodgers begin a three-game series against the Pirates on Friday, Kershaw will be working on a streak of 37 consecutive shutout innings. He'll take on Gerrit Cole (14-5, 2.29 ERA) in a matchup that warrants plenty of buzz even in a season chock-full of amazing pitching performances. As the stretch run awaits, Kershaw and Cole rank up there with Greinke, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom and Jake Arrieta on anybody's National League Cy Young short list.
Now that the curveballs are biting, the hitters are bailing and zeros are dotting the scoreboard with metronomic regularity, it's natural to assume that Kershaw tinkered and sweated and stumbled upon a new grip or some other eureka moment to get himself back on track. But the answer is rarely that simple.
In Kershaw's estimation, his recent roll is testament to the fine line that pitchers walk throughout the season. Entire games can hinge on the fate of an inherited runner, or a ground ball that finds a patch of grass rather than an infielder's glove. Even a pitch on the black that's called a ball or a strike can mean the difference between a 2-1 or a 1-2 count and change the tenor of a pivotal at-bat.
Keeping the ball in the park also helps. In his first 100 innings this season, Kershaw allowed 11 home runs. He has been homer-free in the 48 innings since.
"It's a lot of little things," Kershaw said this week from Philadelphia. "Everybody is like, 'What's changed?' But there's definitely not one thing I can pinpoint to say, 'That's changed to make the results look better.'
"It's usually one or two pitches a game. It might be a lineout now as opposed to a ball that went over the fence in April. Ground balls have to be hit at guys, and there are other things you can't control. But at the same time, I feel like earlier in the year I was making one or two mistakes and giving up runs and costing us the game. For the past couple of months, I've limited the mistakes a little more."
Kershaw is orbiting some rarefied air. He already has joined Luis Tiant (of the 1968 Cleveland Indians and '72 Boston Red Sox) as the second pitcher in history with two streaks of 35 or more scoreless innings. If he can keep the Pirates off the board for four innings Friday, he'll tie his personal high of 41 consecutive shutout innings in 2014.
Dodgers fans are getting spoiled twice in every swing through the rotation this season. Kershaw's run comes a mere two weeks after Greinke made himself the talk of baseball with a shutout streak of 45⅔ innings -- the sixth longest in MLB history.
While the pitching brilliance of Kershaw and Greinke has been greeted with amazement among historians and fans, it elicits garden-variety shrugs at the pitchers' locker stalls. Greinke's hermit-like indifference to public opinion is well-known. Kershaw is more congenial as a rule, but he's equally immersed in his between-starts preparation and determined to avoid emotional swings based on short-term results.
"They're so hard on themselves, they're going to give their best effort no matter what," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "They both expect perfection when they're out there. But when the game is over, they're going to start concentrating on the next one."
Kershaw's pitching breakdown this season shows only minor variations from the norm. He's throwing his curveball about 18 percent of the time -- up from 14 percent last year -- and limiting opponents to a .094 batting average with the pitch. Only Kyle Hendricks of the Chicago Cubs has produced better results with the curve (an .077 batting average against), and he throws it less than half as often as Kershaw does.
Kershaw is not inclined to take the easy path and give rote answers to reporters or nod in assent to the conventional wisdom. He refuses to bite, for example, when asked if he and Greinke have rubbed off on each other in a meaningful way. If anything, Kershaw has more in common with fellow lefty Brett Anderson when it comes to developing a game plan and navigating opposing lineups.
"I enjoy talking with Zack about pitching and different stuff, and learning how he goes about it," Kershaw said. "But that doesn't necessarily help how I go about it. We talk a lot, but it's more for fun than anything."
Nevertheless, a synergy forged by mutual excellence is hard to ignore. The dominance displayed by Kershaw and Greinke is giving Dodgers shortstop Jimmy Rollins flashbacks to 2011, when a Philadelphia Phillies staff led by Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee cut a swath through the National League and propelled the team to 102 victories.
"These guys are filthy," Rollins said of Kershaw and Greinke. "You go out there and you just smile. I'll watch the first inning and talk to our catcher and I'll tell him, '[Opposing hitters] have no shot today.'
"It was the same way with Cole and Doc [Halladay] in Philly. You see the angle of the pitches and the hitters' expressions -- the way they're flinching or not seeing the ball -- and you think, 'These dudes have no chance. All we have to do is score two runs.'"
Along with demoralizing opponents, Kershaw and Greinke are doing their part to further MLB's pace-of-game initiative. Over his past four outings, Kershaw has recorded complete-game wins over the Phillies and New York Mets and starts of eight shutout innings against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Angels. He has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 45-1 during that span.
The game times of Kershaw's past four starts: 2:41, 2:43, 2:27 and 2:46.
"Things go by so quick when hitters are just swinging or not seeing balls at all," Grandal said. "You think it's only the second or third inning, and all of a sudden you look up at the board and it's the fourth. You think, 'Oh man, it's going to go by pretty quick today.'"
At 27, Kershaw is the same pitcher that Dodgers fans have come to know, love and expect since his arrival from the Double-A Southern League in 2008. Skeptics will reflect upon his challenges in April and May and proclaim that Kershaw is "back." In truth, he never really went away.