When not much was going right for the Dodgers, when their bullpen was flailing and their big bats had fallen ominously silent with runners in scoring position and their collective confidence had dipped enough for them to lose three straight games and seven of nine, Clayton Kershaw stepped in and willed them back toward success.
Their most experienced starter played the role of stopper Wednesday, striking out eight and walking one over seven carefully crafted shutout innings against Cincinnati. A six-run outburst by the Dodgers in the eighth turned what had been a tight game into an 8-0 rout, but until that point it could have tipped either way. Kershaw’s quiet determination to end their losing streak and complete their seven-game homestand on a positive note pushed the game over to the Dodgers’ side of the ledger. He simply would not let them lose.
“You knew that he knew how much we needed this game,” manager Dave Roberts said during his postgame webinar.
According to @mlbstats, this was the 55th time in his career Kershaw went seven or more innings and allowed no runs. That ranks third in the wild card era, behind Randy Johnson (57) and Tim Hudson (56). This season, he has recorded 39 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings and has walked only five. In five starts after his opening day loss at Coors Field he’s 4-1 with a 1.16 earned-run average, 0.73 WHIP, .171 batting average and 37 strikeouts in 33 innings pitched.
He made the Dodgers feel like their World Series champion selves again, giving them back some of the swagger they had lost while losing five of the previous six games at Dodger Stadium.
“That was huge,” said Chris Taylor, whose eighth-inning triple triggered the Dodgers’ scoring spree. “We’ve been scuffling, so for him to come in and really shut the door on these guys and give us a great opportunity to win a game, we needed that.”
What Kershaw did Wednesday, though, went beyond basic or advanced stats. At age 33, with a World Series title added to the three Cy Young Awards on his resume, he continues to push himself to grow and to change, becoming as much an artist as a pitcher.
He relied heavily on his slider Wednesday, mixing it with his curveball and fastball to keep the Reds off balance and generate a lot of misses on those off-speed pitches. In the sixth inning, after Nick Senzel led off with an infield hit — Senzel had three of Cincinnati’s four hits off Kershaw — the Dodgers left-hander got Jesse Winker to miss a slider, foul off a fastball, and miss a slow curveball. He followed that by getting Nick Castellanos to take a 92-mph fastball for a called strike, swing and miss at a 75-mph curveball, and then strike out swinging on an 88-mph slider.
“Nick had a great day at the plate, which was great to see, but we just couldn’t get anything else going off of Kershaw,” Reds manager David Bell said. “We’ve all seen that before, and give him credit there.”
Kershaw said he hadn’t consciously decided to throw his slider more often than his fastball this season.
“It’s been trending that way, I guess, over the years. There’s not really a rhyme or reason for it,” he said. “Sometimes the situation dictates throwing it. And I feel good with it. I feel I can throw it at any time, ahead in the count, behind in the count, and at times I might have better command with that than with my fastball at times, so I think all those things play a big factor into that.”
Nor did he approach the game with the idea of throwing more curveballs. He credited catcher Austin Barnes with helping him find what was working.
“There wasn’t a game plan of throwing more curves coming into the game, but Barnes does great job of feeling it out, seeing what’s working, and so he maybe started calling that and we started leaning on it a little more toward the end of the game, for sure,” he said.
Kershaw’s willingness to modify his style has impressed Roberts, as he noted in pregame comments that foreshadowed Kershaw’s excellent effort.
“I think Clayton, in the best possible way, can be stubborn at times, and we know that, but understanding his arsenal and knowing he has so many above-average weapons, just to evolve and to understand that being able to attack guys in different ways has made him just as effective, if not more,” Roberts said. “It’s fun to watch that evolution because now there’s kind of not one book, whether it’s lefty or righty, to game-plan for him now.”
Kershaw acknowledged he felt a sense of responsibility to end the Dodgers’ losing streak. “It doesn’t feel good to lose three in a row,” he said, “so our job as a starting pitcher is to always come out and give our team a chance and put up zeros, and that didn’t change today.”
He did his job as admirably as ever, the starter who stopped the slide and, maybe, turned the Dodgers back in the right direction again.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.