Before the Dodgers' 8-0 win over the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, Clayton Kershaw had begun to take over more than just his scheduled start day. His ongoing struggles seemed to acquire their own spot in the rotation.
The day before each start, the theories would begin. Was something wrong with Kershaw? The next day he would start and the same question would be asked. The day after that would bring more questions about the imperfections from the previous game.
So Tuesday represented Kershaw's latest start day and another chance for theorizing. Manager Don Mattingly offered his latest hypotheses. Hitters were adjusting. Kershaw wasn't putting batters away. He'd gotten bad bounces.
It had become tedious, so Mattingly asked for calm.
"I think by the time the season's over, and we look at Clayton's year, we're all going to go, 'same old Clayton,' " Mattingly said. "If that means wins, ERA, I don't know what all that means. But I think we're going to look at it and say it's the same guy."
So what was wrong with Kershaw against the Braves? Well, he did give up four hits. But that was about it. Kershaw broke the cycle with his best start of the season. He struck out 10 batters in seven innings and didn't give up a hit until the fifth inning.
"There's stuff wrong, giving up runs," Kershaw said. "But I think it's not 'what's wrong,' it's just minor tweaks here and there."
But Kershaw has been so good for so long that his inability to win games early on created a flood of theories.
His earned-run average ballooned. That's not good. But his expected fielder-independent pitching, which roughly predicts ERA, and sat right around two. That is good.
His strikeouts were higher than ever. Good. His walks were up too. Not good.
So was the problem his velocity? No, that was up a fraction. His exit velocity? That tracks how fast each hit leaves the bat, and that wasn't to blame either. His was the third-best in baseball.
His pitch location raised red flags, since it crept out toward the middle of the plate and up into a more dangerous zone, according to data from fangraphs.com. That would portend more balls hit hard.
But entering the week, his hard-hit rate ranked fifth in the major leagues at 9% of at bats, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
The issue was confounding because Kershaw passed the eye test.
"I see him as the same, honestly," Mattingly said. "I think his stuff is still the same."
Maybe, then, Kershaw was the victim of bad luck. There was compelling evidence. Entering the game, his batting average on balls in play was .342 — 68 percentage points higher than his career average. Those results were almost certainly unlucky.
But the six home runs he'd given up this year, compared to nine all of last season — almost certainly not because of luck.
"It seems like when he had to make that one pitch to get out of an inning or get out of a jam, there's been games when we weren't able to do that," Mattingly said.
The scrutiny has been exhaustive and exhausting. Kershaw has shown as much irritation with himself as anyone. After one game, he requested that an interview be cut short because he couldn't stand to dissect his performance any longer.
"People are going to have opinions I guess, and that's great," Kershaw said. "And I guess people have high expectations for me too, which is great. But at the end of the day, I only care about what my teammates and my coaches think."
But when Tuesday's game started, Kershaw dominated. He struck out the first batter, then the third, Freddie Freeman, on a 75-mph curveball. He had no walks, and seven balls left the infield all game.
For the night, at least, it was the same old Kershaw.