A solitary figure parted the crowd, with the San Francisco Giants massed on one side of the diamond and the Dodgers gathering outside their dugout. In baseball, bench-clearing skirmishes involve more grandstanding than fisticuffs, and Clayton Kershaw had little time for foolishness. He punched his glove and jogged to the mound, preparing to warm up as the umpires sorted out the tizzy between Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal and Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto.
"It's just a lot of talk," Kershaw said. "I was just going to keep on playing, if it was the same to everybody else."
The tiff delivered some drama in the third inning of a 6-1 Dodgers victory. But it could not distract from the afternoon's main attraction, a vintage performance by Kershaw. He turned in seven pristine innings. The Giants managed three singles and nothing more. Kershaw (7-2) struck out five and walked none.
The performance stopped the bleeding of a three-game losing streak. The team avoided getting swept, but still went 3-4 on this trip. The Dodgers (23-18) fell on the first two nights at AT&T Park, unable to punish mediocre starting pitchers like Matt Cain and Ty Blach. Cueto suffered a less fortunate fate, giving up five runs in six innings.
Along the way, Cueto became aggrieved by the perception that the Dodgers were trying to steal his signs while on the bases. Members of the Dodgers rejected that premise, while conceding that in-game espionage plays a role in each contest.
"He obviously didn't appreciate the thought that we might be doing something like that," manager Dave Roberts said. "If we were, that's a part of the game."
The seeds of the disagreement were planted in the first inning. Cueto fell into trouble at the outset. Corey Seager popped a single. Justin Turner hit a double down the left-field line. With two outs, Cueto dueled with Grandal. Grandal fouled off three fastballs in a row before Cueto pumped a cutter at his ankles. Grandal reached down and smashed a two-run double off the bricks in right field. If Grandal knew the pitch would be that low, he explained, "I probably wouldn't have swung."
Cueto disagreed. He glared at the Dodgers dugout as the runners scored. Grandal settled into second base. At one point, Cueto stepped off the mound and barked at Grandal. He kicked the dirt at his feet. Grandal pointed at Cueto and hollered back.
"I'm at second, trying to get a walking lead because I'm slow, so I've got to keep moving," Grandal said. "And I guess he thought by me trying to do that, I was giving off signs."
Turner shrugged when asked about the situation.
"Their guys try to get pitches, the Rockies try to get pitches, every team does it," Turner said. "It's funny. We didn't actually have the pitches. We had no idea what his cadence was."
Two innings later, Cueto attempted a version of payback. The decision backfired. After singles by Chase Utley and Seager, Cueto fired a fastball in the vicinity of Grandal's chin. The ball evaded the glove of catcher Buster Posey. Utley came home from third on the wild pitch.
After Grandal flied out, he resumed jawing with Cueto. The benches soon emptied. Cueto sidled up beside umpire Mike Muchlinski. Dodgers first base coach George Lombard corralled Grandal. Cueto and Grandal would reconcile later in the game, but at the moment, tempers were flaring.
Kershaw cut through the fray and went to warm up. He saw little reason to let the tizzy affect his afternoon.
Five days earlier, Kershaw had logged seven innings at Coors Field. He confined Colorado to two runs. The performance did not satisfy him. Afterward, holding his infant son and managing a smile, Kershaw remarked, "There was a lot of bad pitching."
His last inning that night offered a glimmer of promise. Kershaw wielded the slider with precision, reducing the velocity and increasing the movement. He carried that command into Wednesday.
"This is the first game for me, in a while, that the slider was almost back to where it needs to be, and where he expects it to be," Roberts said.
From the start, Kershaw looked impervious. With a slew of right-handers in the opposing lineup, he focused on driving his fastball inside and finishing at-bats with his offspeed pitches. He struck out the first two batters he faced. He did not allow a Giant to reach base until former Dodger Justin Ruggiano singled up the middle with one out in the fourth. Kershaw responded by inducing a double play when rookie Christian Arroyo pounded a curveball into the ground.
In the sixth, the Dodgers' lead grew to five runs. Turner led off with a single. Cody Bellinger doubled. A walk by Chris Taylor loaded the bases. Yasiel Puig punched a fastball into left for a two-out, two-run single.
Kershaw protected the score with care. He used the slider to strike out slugger Michael Morse and outfielder Mac Williamson to end the fifth. When pinch-hitter Nick Hundley hit a two-out single in the sixth, Kershaw grounded out third baseman Eduardo Nunez on the next pitch. Nunez made soft contact against a slider.
After the game, a crowd gathered around Kershaw's locker. It was difficult to hear — the clubhouse speaker system was blaring "Mask Off" by Future. Kershaw grabbed an iPad and lowered the volume. He excels, it appears, at cutting through the noise.
"It was a good day," Kershaw said. "Good win. Needed it today, obviously."