LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers entered their four-game series against the Cubs having just been swept by the Padres in San Diego. The set with Chicago opened on Thursday with L.A. getting no-hit.
Manager Dave Roberts summed up what his team was feeling after that demoralizing run as “embarrassment.”
Rather than wallow in it, it seems that his club found a way to translate that sense of embarrassment into a motivating force. The Dodgers turned things around in a big way over the next three games, culminating in a 7-1 win over the Cubs on Sunday to secure a series victory against one of the National League’s better clubs.
The win was primarily powered by Clayton Kershaw’s best start of 2021 so far. Kershaw struck out a season-high 13 batters in eight innings of one-run ball. It was vintage stuff from the left-hander, who last struck out at least 13 batters on July 9, 2017, against the Royals. He hadn’t completed eight innings in a start since August 2018, when he did it twice.
“It's hard to imagine him being any better,” manager Dave Roberts said.
Indeed, Kershaw was as sharp as he’s been all season, with 70 of his 101 pitches going for strikes. He was routinely fooling Cubs hitters, who whiffed 26 times, including 22 times on the slider. It was the most swings and misses Kershaw has induced this season, and the fifth most in his career. All of his strikeouts came on sliders or curveballs.
“I was getting some swing and misses on [the slider],” said Kershaw. “I would say that was good, [I was] able to use that to both sides of the plate.”
Kershaw gave some credit to the game’s late-afternoon start time, noting that the shadows across the plate might have helped him a bit by making his pitches more difficult for hitters to pick up. Roberts, however, downplayed their impact.
“He was just in complete control,” said Roberts. “You just saw it from pitch one.”
At age 33, Kershaw, once nearly universally considered the best pitcher in the game, is still finding ways to impress. His 124 strikeouts rank third in the National League, and he’s got the third-best K-BB rate (6.89). His 2.8 fWAR this season is tied for fourth among all Major League pitchers. He might not be a perennial Cy Young candidate anymore, but he’s proving that he’s still well deserving of the title of “ace.”
And Kershaw’s teammates will tell you that he brings out the best in them, too. Zach McKinstry, who gave Kershaw all the support he’d need with his first career grand slam, noted how the southpaw’s influence impacts the club as a whole.
“It's fun to watch him do what he does,” McKinstry said. “I mean, he's one of the greats. He's a great baseball player, great competitor, even in his at-bats that he has. He's a great leader in this clubhouse and everybody just kind of swarms around him.”
Of course, because this is baseball in 2021, Kershaw’s start also featured a couple of now-routine checks by the umpires for foreign substances, both of which he passed -- including the one he got as he was exiting to a standing ovation in the middle of the eighth.
"I told [the umpire] that he might get booed here a little bit," Kershaw said. "But you know, it's part of the game now. They're just doing their job."
The Dodgers now find themselves in a good place heading into an important two-game set against San Francisco starting Monday. After the Giants lost on Sunday, the Dodgers sat 3 1/2 games behind them in second place in the NL West.
With more than half of the schedule remaining to be played, it’s still a bit too early for serious scoreboard watching. However, the Giants and Padres have established themselves as serious contenders, making it the first time in a long time that the Dodgers have had multiple threats to their reign in the division. Games against those teams in 2021 have come with an added intensity, and so far, it’s been about a dead heat between L.A. and San Francisco, with the Dodgers taking four of their first seven meetings.
Going head to head with the Giants once more, the Dodgers have an opportunity to take fate into their own hands.
“We kind of got back on the high last three games, and it's good to see,” said Kershaw. “I think going into the Giants games in next two days with some momentum is a good thing.”