LOS ANGELES -- For Clayton Kershaw, his final starts of the regular season are played with an eye toward the impending postseason run, a balancing act between getting work in and saving strength for October.
Kershaw struck that balance on Saturday night, hurling five scoreless innings in a 7-0 win over the Giants at Dodger Stadium. It was Kershaw’s 210th career victory, moving him past Don Drysdale for sole possession of second on the Dodgers’ all-time wins list (behind Don Sutton’s 233).
It also ensured that the Dodgers will not have to play in the National League Wild Card round of the postseason, as they secured at least the second-best record in the NL.
- Games remaining (8): vs. SF (1), at COL (4), at SF (3)
- Standings update: The Dodgers (95-59), who clinched the NL West title on Sept. 16, clinched a bye in the NL Wild Card round on Saturday. They trail the Braves (99-55) by four games for the No. 1 seed in the National League. The Braves hold the tiebreaker, as they went 4-3 against the Dodgers in the season series.
Making his seventh start since returning from an IL stint necessitated by left shoulder inflammation, Kershaw was still working under limitations. Manager Dave Roberts said prior to the game that an “ideal” start would be around five innings and 75 pitches; Kershaw got it done with 76, striking out five while walking two and allowing two hits.
As was the case with his previous six outings, Kershaw’s four-seam velocity was down from his pre-IL run, averaging 88.7 mph (compared to 90.9 on the season) and maxing out at 89.7. In his younger years, the fastball averaged closer to 94 mph.
“At the end of the day, you just have to execute pitches, you know?” said Kershaw. “It's as simple as that, regardless of what your velocity is or how the stuff’s moving. So, obviously, you'd like to be at your peak, but to be able to put pitches where you want to and execute your offspeed pitches, ultimately, you can get guys out that way.”
Part of how Kershaw did that on Saturday was by learning heavily on his slider, which he threw for 46 percent of his pitches. Six of his eight whiffs came on sliders, as did 11 of the 18 outs he recorded -- including Austin Slater’s lineout to end the top of the fifth, on which left fielder David Peralta made an outstanding catch to help Kershaw escape a second-and-third jam.
While Kershaw showed his outfielder some appreciation, the sellout Dodger Stadium crowd in turn showed their appreciation to the left-hander, giving him a standing ovation as he walked off the field. There’s a chance it could have been his final regular-season start in L.A. as a Dodger, although that’s not a decision he’s ready to make just yet.
“It's always special to get to pitch here,” said Kershaw. “And thankfully, we're in the playoffs and it's a nice distraction, because we don't really have to think about next year or anything like that. But whenever it could be your last one, you maybe take a second extra.”
A three-time NL Cy Young Award winner, 10-time All-Star and the 2014 NL MVP, there’s plenty to admire about what Kershaw has accomplished throughout his likely Hall of Fame career. But those around him can’t help but praise what he’s doing right now. Kershaw is still experiencing issues with his shoulder, which he’s elected to pitch through, working in additional days of rest where possible -- a major change of pace for the rigorously routine-oriented ace.
Although he hasn’t gone more than five innings in his past seven starts, the results have been there, as he has a 2.03 ERA in that span, with one more regular-season start remaining. It’s a good sign for the Dodgers, who plan to use Kershaw to start either Game 1 or 2 of the NLDS.
“It's just remarkable, it really is,” said Roberts. “I think that Clayton is the first to tell you he doesn't like to use anything as an excuse or talk about anything. But I know what's going on. I just have so much respect for him. And people can't do what he can do. … He just sort of wills himself to get guys out.”
Roberts admitted that, for several years now, the season’s waning days have stirred thoughts about whether we’re nearing the last time seeing Kershaw in a Dodger uniform. But there’s still a lot left to be done before the time comes to focus on that. And whatever does come next for Kershaw, those around him certainly aren’t taking what he’s done -- and what he continues to do -- for granted.
“I'm not going to get caught not appreciating what he’s done for the Dodgers,” said Roberts.