Clayton Kershaw peeked over his right shoulder, noted the flight of the baseball and looked away. The milestone carried no weight for him. Kershaw never saw the baseball land, never saw the disappearance of the first grand slam he had ever allowed in the major leagues.
It happened in the 10th season, 290th game and 1,923rd inning of Kershaw’s career, in the sixth inning of a 4-3 loss to the Phillies. Philadelphia outfielder Aaron Altherr made history when he cranked a flat, belt-high slider into the upper deck in left field at Citizens Bank Park. Altherr said later he was unsure if the pitch was a fastball or a slider — he only knew it was mis-located, and he punished Kershaw for the mistake.
The homer ruined a night that started with ease for the Dodgers. Chris Taylor led off with an inside-the-park home run. Justin Turner homered in the next at-bat. Kershaw blanked the Phillies for five innings.
Then it unraveled in the sixth, underscoring the fret that may surround Kershaw as October approaches. In four outings since returning from the disabled list, he has vacillated between brilliant and diminished. He followed six rugged innings in San Francisco last week with an inning-long tumble Monday.
“No progress,” Kershaw said. “We had the lead, and I blew it, and we lost. There’s not a lot of progress there to be had.”
The Dodgers were not obligated to lose after Altherr’s homer landed, but the offense folded. Curtis Granderson tightened the score in the ninth with a solo homer. It was the team's first hit since the third inning.
Manager Dave Roberts maintained calm about Kershaw. He mentioned how the team planned to give Kershaw four to six starts to ramp up for October after missing five weeks with a back strain. His 3.74 earned-run average since returning has landed within their expectations, even if Kershaw has fallen short of his own elevated standard.
“You can see him feeling for things,” Roberts said. “But there are still signs as we look forward to the end of the season and the postseason that he’s going to be where he needs to be.”
The Dodgers expect to celebrate their fifth consecutive National League West title this week. Earlier in the season, as the team treaded water in third place, Roberts insisted his club would leapfrog both Arizona and Colorado. He was right. He treated the upcoming champagne bash like a certainty.
“It’s going to happen,” Roberts said before the game. “It’s inevitable. I’m just more concerned about playing good baseball.”
That concept eluded the team for more than two weeks during that 1-16 losing stretch. The Dodgers rebounded to win four in a row last week while winning series against San Francisco and Washington. A chance to sweep the Nationals was foiled Sunday, in part by Washington starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg. The Dodgers faced a less elite pitcher Monday.
There are 126 pitchers who have thrown 100 or more innings this season. None of those men owned an earned-run average larger than Philadelphia starter Nick Pivetta, who lugged a 6.75 ERA to the mound Monday.
The Dodgers greeted him with malice. Taylor waffled the second pitch of the game, a waist-high, 96-mph fastball. His drive soared into center field. Converging toward the ball were left fielder Altherr and center fielder Odubel Herrera. The baseball clanged off the railing and bounced into vacated grass in left. Taylor breezed home. It was the first leadoff inside-the-park homer by a Dodger since Roberts hit one on Aug. 9, 2003.
Turner followed with a more conventional homer. Pivetta left a curveball over the middle. Turner shipped the baseball beyond the left-field fence.
The early blows did not overwhelm Pivetta. He extricated himself from trouble in the third after singles by Taylor and Cody Bellinger. Pivetta induced a sharp grounder to third base off the bat of Yasiel Puig. The Phillies escaped by turning two.
“That was a turning point right there,” Roberts said.
Pivetta did not give up another hit. He struck out eight in six innings.
Kershaw brushed aside the Philadelphia hitters during the first five innings. He yielded two singles and nothing else. No Phillie stood on second base. Yet Kershaw felt unsatisfied with his performance.
“It wasn’t great, really all night,” Kershaw said. “I had trouble putting guys away with two strikes. A lot of extra pitches. It caught up to me, I guess.”
In the sixth, Kershaw kept missing low as he walked the leadoff batter, pinch-hitter Ty Kelly. Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis flared a single. With two outs, Kershaw dueled with Rhys Hoskins, Philadelphia’s rookie sensation. In his first 37 games, Hoskins boomed 18 home runs.
Kershaw avoided giving up No. 19. He aimed to spot fastballs and sliders at the floor of the zone, but missed his spot. Unable to ring up Hoskins, Kershaw allowed his second walk of the inning.
“We were being a little bit careful with Hoskins,” catcher Austin Barnes said. “But he laid off some pretty good pitches.
Altherr arrived next. He swung through a knee-high slider. Kershaw bounced a curveball. Then came the game-disrupting slider, a pitch without enough velocity to overwhelm and without enough movement to disrupt Altherr’s swing. He crushed it. History was made.
Kershaw declined to offer much insight in his evaluation of his past four starts. His anger told the story. “Not great, I guess,” Kershaw said. “A few bad ones. I probably should pitch better.”