MINNEAPOLIS -- Given the circumstances, Clayton Kershaw knew the inevitable was coming.
The three-time National League Cy Young Award winner looked like his vintage self in Wednesday’s 7-0 win over the Twins, tossing seven perfect innings in his first start of 2022. He had thrown 80 pitches and looked like he might have the ability to finish his second no-hitter -- and what would have been the first perfect game of his 15-year career with the Dodgers.
But Kershaw had to consider the left forearm injury that he struggled with last season and the platelet-rich plasma injection he had in October that caused a delay to his normal offseason work. Then there was the lockout and the abbreviated Spring Training.
So Kershaw knew the hook was coming from manager Dave Roberts.
“Blame it on the lockout, blame it on me not picking up a baseball until January,” said the 34-year-old left-hander, who threw a no-hitter in 2014 against the Rockies. “My slider was horrible the last two innings. It didn’t have the bite. It was time.”
Alex Vesia came on in relief and surrendered a hit to Gary Sánchez in the eighth inning to break up the perfect game and no-hit bid.
For Roberts, it was another case of having to pull a starter deep into potential historic territory. In September 2016, he pulled Rich Hill after seven perfect innings because of the starter’s ongoing blister issues. Earlier that year, Roberts pulled Ross Stripling after 7 1/3 no-hit frames in his big league debut.
In Walker Buehler’s third career start in 2018, he was pulled after five no-hit innings.
“I love the idea that we’re preventing runs in that particular game,” Roberts said. “It’s not a great spot as far as the decision, ultimately, that I have to make. But I think if I can look back and I feel it’s the best decision -- in the best interest of the player’s health and for the ballclub -- looking out, then I feel good about it. But those guys make it tough on me. But we have good players.”
In Kershaw’s case, health was again the consideration.
“He’s pretty honest and understanding of where he was at, how he was feeling, what’s at stake -- the win, the no-hitter, the potential health risk, all that stuff matters,” Roberts said. “There’s no right, 100% answer, but in this case I felt it was very clear to me the right decision was, ‘Give us seven great innings and hand the ball off to the next guy.’”
Kershaw admitted he would have liked to keep pitching, but he accepted that it was the “right choice.”
“At the end of the day, those are individual things, those are selfish goals,” Kershaw said. “We’re trying to win. That’s really all we’re here for. As much as I would have wanted to do it, I’ve thrown 75 pitches in a sim game. I hadn’t gone six innings, let alone seven. Sure, I would have loved to do it, but maybe we get another chance. Who knows?”
For Kershaw to even be in that position was a story in itself. He missed more than two months last season with left forearm inflammation. He would return in September to make four starts, but he needed the injection and then missed the postseason. As a result, he didn’t start throwing again until early January.
In most offseasons, Kershaw would start back up just a few weeks after the season. But he was also considering changing teams for the first time in his career, exploring options with the Rangers before Dodgers general manager Andrew Friedman made a call as soon as the lockout ended.
“There was a lot of unknown for him,” said catcher Austin Barnes, who was behind the plate for Kershaw and also hit his second homer of the season as part of the Dodgers’ back-to-back-to-back blasts in the eighth. “His health, the flexor. And then he came to spring and he was ready to roll. That was a surprise to me, how good he looked in spring and then carrying it over is big for us and big for the Dodgers.”
Kershaw was locked in from the start of Spring Training. In four outings, he allowed just four earned runs and tallied 13 strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings. Roberts said Kershaw also started to use his curveball and changeup more often.
But it was the slider that kept the Twins off-balance Wednesday, as Kershaw racked up 11 strikeouts with it -- his most strikeouts in a game with that pitch in his career. He also drew 17 swings and misses with the slider.
“Kershaw went out there and was as impressive as any pitcher that you’ll see in this game,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “His slider was a pitch that I think in some ways kinda took over the game for a really long stretch.”
Kershaw’s 13 strikeouts left him just 13 away from the Dodgers’ all-time record of 2,696, set by Don Sutton.
“He’s an elite pitcher in this game,” Barnes said. “He knows how to throw the ball. He knows how to read hitters. He knows how to read situations. Even when he’s not throwing good stuff-wise, he has the ability to go out there and give us a chance to win.”
By the end of seven innings on Wednesday, Kershaw had already done that.