Of all the whistling and winding throws by Clayton Kershaw on a hot and hostile Sunday night, this pitch was the wildest.
Yet three months from now, this pitch might be remembered as the best.
Delivered at the start of the fourth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals' Matt Holliday, thrown miles out of the strike zone but right on target, this pitch won't be remembered as a ball or a strike, but a message.
"We're going to protect our guys," Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said.
Finally, somebody on a baseball team charged with being rich and spoiled and complacent has done exactly that. And, of course, his cap pulled low over a shaggy-haired glare, that somebody was Kershaw.
He is the Dodgers' conscience, so it only made sense that when he felt his teammates had finally been mugged often enough in plain sight at Busch Stadium, he became their cop.
In the middle of a game that the Dodgers were leading, shortly after Hanley Ramirez had been hit in the shoulder by a 98-mph fastball from Carlos Martinez, Kershaw ignored the score and situation and calmly hit Holliday in the safest area of the backside.
Plunk. Ouch. Outrage. Perfect.
Holliday wasn't hurt, the Dodgers were inspired, and even though Kershaw eventually gave up a stunning, score-tying two-run home run to Peter Bourjos in the sixth, the Dodgers came back to win the game, 4-3, on Adrian Gonzalez's RBI single in the ninth.
"It felt good to have a little edge tonight," catcher A.J. Ellis said with a grin.
That edge came from attempting to salvage the finale of what felt like a post-All-Star break weekend hangover, the Dodgers desperately fighting through a precise band of Cardinals and their roaring sea of red in hopes of leaving here with a Game 7-type win and a four-games-to-three victory in their completed season series.
"We needed a win, tonight was important for us," Kershaw said.
But, even more so, that edge came from the Dodgers leader who is unafraid to roll up his sleeves and bare his teeth and be known as much for his roundhouse swings as his scoreless innings.
Kershaw is not only the team's best player, he is also one who is willing to risk his sterling reputation and starry future to stand up for his teammates at all costs. This is why the players love him. This is why they play so hard behind him. This is why, even when he is struggling, the Dodgers will always have a chance to win with him.
"He's a soldier, man," Ramirez said afterward.
Truly, throwing balls at other human beings to make a point is a prehistoric exercise, but it is also the only way that baseball players feel they can protect their teammates. Throwing at someone's head is criminal, but throwing safely at someone's lower body is considered an important way of backing your opponent down and earning respect.
"That's the way to do it," Gonzalez said after Kershaw did it exactly that way.
The drama began in the top of the fourth inning, when, with one out, Ramirez was hit by Martinez. Considering the Dodgers led, 3-1, at the time, there was no reason to believe Martinez hit Ramirez intentionally. But as Ramirez sat befuddled and pained behind home plate, the Dodgers' memory was revived and their emotions were raised.
This was the same place where Ramirez suffered a broken rib when he was hit by a pitch from Joe Kelly in the opener of last year's National League Championship Series. He was the Dodgers' hottest hitter at the time, and their offense never recovered, and there had always been strong suspicions that Kelly knew exactly what he was doing. Yet the Dodgers couldn't retaliate in the playoffs, and hadn't retaliated in the teams' six previous meetings this year, not even with Kelly having faced them twice.
Kershaw finally changed all that. He stalked to the mound in fourth, stared down the first hitter to step to the plate, and perfectly aimed his first pitch at the soft spot of Holliday's posterior. The ball was thrown at a place that could not hurt Holliday, yet it was thrown with an intent that would energize the Dodgers.
"He wasn't doing it to a point where he's putting Holliday's career at risk, he's not going after his head or upper body," Gonzalez said. "He did it the way baseball tells you to do it. He did it in a professional way like he has."
Professional, and poignant. The ball hit Holliday, the fans howled, plate umpire Ed Hickox warned both teams, and Kershaw never moved.
Finally, a team known for its shrugs finally showed a little shove. Finally, the Dodgers fought back. Holliday was almost immediately erased on a double play grounder, the inning ended harmlessly, but the drama was complete.
As Kershaw jogged to the dugout steps, he was met by Ramirez, who extended his glove and tapped Kershaw's glove in the ultimate sign of in-game respect.
"It's one family," said Ramirez. "It's how you win championships."
It's how the Dodgers almost won a championship last season, remember? In the middle of June, Zack Greinke hit Arizona's Miguel Montero in retaliation for Yasiel Puig's being hit in the face by Ian Kennedy. Eleven days later, the Dodgers began their historic 42-8 run. So, yes, prehistoric or not, this is how baseball players communicate, and this is often how they come together.
"I have a ton of respect for Matt Holliday and the way he plays the game, that's all I'm going to say about that," Kershaw said. "But what I will say is, though, it's tough when you see Hanley get hit like that so many times. It's one thing to miss in[side], but when you're missing up and in at a guy's face like that, that's really scary. . . . When you throw that hard, you need to have a better idea where the ball's going."
Kershaw acknowledged that, this being a regular-season game, he has yet to atone for the seven runs he allowed in four innings during his last visit here in Game 6 of last year's NLCS.
And Ramirez, believe it or not, was hit again in the ninth inning by Trevor Rosenthal, with a pitch that clearly was unintentional.
So many things were left unfinished Sunday night, but one thing was certain. The Dodgers' leader stood up, and the team stood with him.
Twitter: @billplaschkeCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times