The fourth inning had not gone well for Clayton Kershaw. His defense had betrayed him, twice. Then his command betrayed him. A walk? Virtual heresy.
As his catcher tossed the ball back to the mound, Kershaw did something few pitchers would consider, at risk of an error or, more critically, of jeopardizing their career. The Angels had put two runners on base, for what would be the first of two times against him on this Thursday evening.
This could not continue, would not continue. The owner of the most valuable left arm in baseball reached out with that arm and caught the ball with his bare hand. Snapped at the ball, really.
The best pitcher in baseball had had enough.
In an online world where rankings and opinions are rapidly replacing actual journalism, there is an increasingly popular parlor game: Has Max Scherzer toppled Kershaw as the game's best pitcher?
No, as the Angels would tell you. Kershaw struck out 12 in seven innings, scattering three hits without giving up an earned run. The Dodgers thumped the Angels, 6-2, at Angel Stadium, and so the teams split the four-game Freeway Series.
Kershaw was asked if he followed the stories about whether he or Scherzer were better, and whether they motivated him.
"No," Kershaw said.
To both questions?
"Yes," he said.
The game got a little exciting in the eighth, after Kershaw's departure, when the Angels got the tying run to the plate and Yunel Escobar's shouts after getting hit by a pitch triggered a bench-clearing, well, discussion. Kenley Jansen restored order with a four-out save, the eighth time this season he has worked more than one inning for the save.
Escobar declined to comment. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said the incident might have been triggered by an earlier stare-down between Escobar and Kershaw. Jansen said the whole bench-clearing theater is "stupid" in general. "If you want to go one on one, just go one on one," Jansen said.
The name of the game is to win. Amid all the individual statistics, old school and new school alike, consider this: When Kershaw starts, the Dodgers are 15-2. When Scherzer starts, the Washington Nationals are 10-6. (Yeah, the Nationals' bullpen, but still.)
Kershaw improved to 94-0 when the Dodgers score four or more runs for him. On Thursday, they scored five on home runs — a three-run homer from Joc Pederson, and solo shots from Yasiel Puig and Chase Utley.
The Dodgers set a franchise record for home runs in any month, with 50 in June. The San Francisco Giants have hit 66 this season.
Puig snapped a 1-1 tie in the fifth inning, with a long look at a long home run, then a disdainful casting aside of his bat. Utley homered later in that inning and Pederson followed in the next, meaning Angels starter JC Ramirez had given up three homers within a span of eight batters.
Kershaw became the first 12-game winner in the majors; he's on pace for a career-high 24 victories.
Scherzer leads the National League with a 2.06 earned-run average; Kershaw is next at 2.32. Kershaw leads in innings, with Scherzer next. Scherzer leads in strikeouts, with Kershaw next.
"I think, at the end of the year, our guy will be the best pitcher," Roberts said.
Roberts had high praise for Scherzer, but noted before the game that his ace is right there with Scherzer statistically, despite all those "What's wrong with Kershaw?" stories.
"I think that those two are in a class by themselves. That's No. 1," Roberts said. "We haven't seen the best of Clayton this year. For him to still pitch the way he has, without in my opinion his best stuff, is very telling.
"I think it's in there. There's starts where the fastball command is exactly on point, and there's other days where the curve ball and the fastball are right but the slider is not there. There's other days where the slider is very good but the fastball command is spotty. Who he is, how he prepares, to expect a run where things are all in sync, I don't think that's far-fetched. …"
On Thursday, Kershaw did his best work when he did all the work.
In the first inning, he struck out the side.
In the fourth, after a bobble by left fielder Trayce Thompson and a wide throw by shortstop Corey Seager enabled the Angels to score their first run, and after the ensuing walk, Kershaw struck out the next two batters to retire the side, the first of five consecutive strikeouts. By the end of that roll, the best pitcher in baseball had a five-run lead.
"I won't be the one to tell him not to grab the baseball with his bare hand," Roberts said, "but sometimes you'd wish he'd use the glove."