LOS ANGELES -- A sold-out crowd rose to its feet after Clayton Kershaw recorded the 2,697th regular-season strikeout of his career Saturday in the fourth inning, breaking a Los Angeles Dodgers record that Don Sutton held across five decades.
A graphic representing the milestone flashed on the Dodger Stadium video boards, and the roar of 52,613 fans intensified. Play was halted, and Kershaw -- famously meticulous, intense and hyper-focused during his start days -- finally broke character.
He lifted his cap, patted his chest from the rubber, strolled behind the mound, raised his hat once more, then collected himself before continuing on his outing.
"It's special," Kershaw said after producing another solid outing in the Dodgers' 5-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers. "I didn't expect it. I understand that the Dodgers are a historic franchise and have been around a long time, so the guys that are on that list that I was fortunate enough to pass was a big deal. But I didn't know that fans would know or honestly care that much. It was special for me. It really was. It was cool to see. I tried to brush it off and keep going, but they wouldn't let me. It definitely meant a lot."
Sutton, a Hall of Famer who died in January 2021, last pitched for the Dodgers in 1988 and had reigned as the franchise's strikeout leader since 1979. He reached 2,696 strikeouts in 550 appearances for the Dodgers. Kershaw passed him in his 383rd, which saw him pitch six innings of one-run ball and strike out seven, bringing his career strikeout total to 2,700. Only 25 others have ever reached that mark.
Kershaw struck out Dustin Garneau on a curveball to tie Sutton for the second out of the third inning, triggering a brief standing ovation. An inning later, with one on and none out, he set a new mark by getting Tigers rookie first baseman Spencer Torkelson to swing through an 0-2 slider -- the pitch Kershaw developed early in his career that ultimately set him apart. He recorded two more strikeouts that inning, then tipped his cap to recognize another standing ovation as he approached the third-base dugout.
When Kershaw finished the top half of the sixth inning, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts approached him on the bench and told him to "enjoy this."
He was pleased to see Kershaw already had.
"It's just growth," Roberts said of watching Kershaw acknowledge the crowd in the middle of his start. "I think he's understanding that you can get out of focus to then re-focus. He's done that more times than not more recently, and I think that's a good thing. This was a special moment, obviously, for him, but the fans have been on this journey with him, too. I like the way that he really understood that."
A three-time Cy Young Award winner, Kershaw leads all Dodgers players in Baseball-Reference wins above replacement while ranking third in starts, fourth in wins and fifth in innings. Since the start of the live-ball era in 1920, he boasts the lowest ERA (2.49) and WHIP (1.00) among starting pitchers with at least 1,500 innings.
And at 34 he's still as good as ever.
Kershaw, who didn't pitch in last year's postseason because of discomfort in his elbow and didn't pick up a baseball until January, didn't issue his first walk until his 20th inning of 2022. His ERA is down to 2.35, and he has recorded 30 strikeouts through his first four starts of a season for only the fifth time in his 15-year career. In the other four instances, Kershaw didn't finish any worse than fifth in Cy Young voting.
"I don't wanna just pitch to pitch," said Kershaw, who returned to the Dodgers on a one-year, $17 million contract. "That's not a goal of mine, to stick around. I don't have any interest in just sticking around to be around. I wanna be here to contribute to a team that might win a World Series. That's what I wanna do. If either of those things aren't around, I don't see myself sticking around. If I'm not helpful, I won't be here. I'm glad that I've had a good start to the season, but I have a long way to go."