Kershaw reclaims spot atop the mountain
LOS ANGELES -- With all due respect to teammate Zack Greinke and the rest of the pitching fraternity, the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw has reclaimed his place at the top of the summit -- resoundingly, with little room for disagreement. The master is all the way back.
Kershaw won't have a bookend for his 2014 National League Most Valuable Player Award and probably won't win a fifth consecutive Major League ERA title -- Greinke has a comfortable cushion with no signs of weakening. Kershaw is only halfway to 20 wins in the afterglow of his 3-0 silencing of the Nationals on Wednesday night, so a third 20-win season and a fourth NL Cy Young Award likely are also out of reach.
But Kershaw, who outdueled a brilliant Jordan Zimmermann in his latest masterwork, once again stands alone. No one can touch him when he's in full command of his many gifts.
Over Kershaw's past eight starts, dating to June 27 in Miami, he has been the same overwhelming force of the past four seasons. He has yielded six earned runs in 62 innings (0.87 ERA) while racking up 74 strikeouts and issuing just five walks. Kershaw has a WHIP of 0.73 over this span, holding hitters to a .177 batting average.
Kershaw is 5-0 over his past six starts and has won seven consecutive decisions against the Nationals with a 0.82 ERA, dating to April 2012. Their formidable lineup close to fully intact after a series of disruptive injuries, the Nats didn't reach base until there was one out in the sixth on Wednesday.
Rookie center fielder Michael Taylor, filling Denard Span's role with impressive tools, lifted a first-pitch fastball over fellow center fielder Joc Pederson's head for a no-doubt double, ending all perfect game and no-hit notions.
Kershaw tenaciously protected his one-run lead with help from Kiké Hernandez. Filling in for Jimmy Rollins at shortstop, Hernandez made a diving stab of Yunel Escobar's bullet, jumped quickly to his feet and delivered a strong one-hop throw handled by Adrian Gonzalez for the third out.
An inning later, Kershaw was at his absolute best after Anthony Rendon stroked a leadoff single to left.
Bryce Harper, back in action after banging his left knee in right field in the series opener and missing Greinke's winning decision on Tuesday night, had grounded out his first two at-bats. The slope of the mound cost him a hit in the fourth when it rerouted to Hernandez a shot seemingly destined for center field.
This was last year's NL MVP Award winner facing this year's leading NL MVP Award candidate in a game-changing situation. Harper was 1-for-11 against Kershaw as he stepped in, but it was a bomb that cost Clayton a shutout opportunity last season at Dodger Stadium.
The count 2-1 in Harper's favor, Kershaw reached back for his best 95-mph heater. Harper took a huge rip that found only air. Here came Kershaw with more 95-mph gas, and Harper once again swung from his heels without making contact.
Few moments are equal to a great pitcher unleashing his best fastballs against a pure power hitter -- the game reduced to its most compelling elements. Kershaw blew down Harper, then erased veteran sluggers Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth with nasty sliders.
In the home dugout, manager Don Mattingly exhaled. He would get one more inning out of Kershaw before calling on Kenley Jansen to close it out.
Asked if he allowed himself to soak in the theater of the seventh as a fan, Mattingly slowly shook his head. His job description doesn't allow for the visceral enjoyment of such moments.
"I don't know about the fan part -- relaxed, beer in hand," Mattingly said through a thin grin. "It's good to have Clayton out there [in the seventh] and in the eighth. I thought they had better swings the last time through [the order].
"I can't say I feel like a fan in the seventh inning of a 1-0 game."
Kershaw is no attorney. He made his case for finishing what he started, but Mattingly had the gavel and summoned Jansen.
"If he's picking Kenley or me, I can't really argue," Kershaw said. "Tried, but it didn't work."
Facing the master, the Nationals knew the feeling.