Dave Roberts considers himself “a pretty good listener,” so he stood before Clayton Kershaw on Friday evening and allowed his ace to argue his case.
It was the eighth inning of an eventual 4-1 victory over Atlanta, with a pair of runners aboard and Braves All-Star Freddie Freeman at the plate. Kershaw reminded his manager that he had retired Freeman three times already in the evening. Roberts let Kershaw say his piece. Then the manager handed the baseball to his closer, Kenley Jansen, for a four-out save.
The Dodgers designed their roster to function like this on nights when Kershaw pitches. The sequence of events — from Kershaw to Jansen to a handshake line — was seamless Friday. Jansen retired Freeman on one pitch, and returned for the ninth to collect his 30th save. Kershaw pitched into the eighth inning for the first time all season. He permitted one run and six hits. He struck out eight and looked like “vintage Clayton,” Roberts said.
“I know that tonight it was a good feeling to win, to go deep in the game and give the ball to Kenley, all that stuff,” Kershaw said. “I’d like to do that again.”
It would be hard to top his evening at the plate. After Rich Hill notched an RBI single on Thursday, Kershaw topped him with a crucial, two-run hit of his own. Kershaw reached base in all four of his plate appearances, accepting three walks along the way.
The rest of the offense came in the form of homers. Alex Verdugo collected his first of the season. Yasmani Grandal extended his torrid July with a solo shot of his own off Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz.
Kershaw has now made seven starts since returning from the disabled list on June 23 after missing time with a lower back strain and biceps tendinitis. He has a 2.23 ERA in those outings. His fastball velocity averaged 92 mph and reached 94 mph on Friday, according to Brooks Baseball.
“We’ve handled Clayton with kid gloves coming back from the injury,” Roberts said. “And I think we’ve done the right things as far as the progressions. And each start, he’s gotten considerably better. And I think his confidence in his health, and the reactions to the swings, is building confidence as well.”
Atlanta landed the first blow. Braves outfielder Nick Markakis ripped a 90-mph fastball from Kershaw into the left-field corner for a double to lead off the second inning. After a single by by catcher Kurt Suzuki, outfielder Ender Inciarte drove home a run with a groundout.
Verdugo has performed well in this brief cameo in the majors. But he was informed after the game that he would be optioned back to triple-A Oklahoma City on Saturday as Yasiel Puig returned from the disabled list. Verdugo hugged a few teammates and said goodbye after the game.
“He’s a major league player,” Roberts said. “Obviously, with our depth and how we’re playing, certain guys are the odd man out at that point in time. But I can’t say enough about him. Tonight, getting the score back to even, the homer off Foltynewicz, that was a big shot right there. And I think that gave Clayton some confidence to be back in the baseball game.”
The battery of Grandal and Kershaw tagged Foltynewicz for three more runs in the fourth. Grandal unloaded on a belt-high fastball for his fourth home run since the All-Star break. The hitters behind him added to Foltynewicz’s burden.
Matt Kemp took a walk. Chris Taylor lined a double over Markakis’ head in right field. With two outs and both runners in scoring position, Foltynewicz flung a 96-mph fastball down the middle. Kershaw was late with his swing, but produced enough velocity for his grounder to shoot down the third base line. It rolled into the outfield as Kemp and Taylor loped home.
“I was super late and got fortunate,” Kershaw said. “Folty was throwing 100 mph, and I got lucky.”
Kershaw settled down after the second inning. He permitted a single in the fifth but otherwise cruised. He ended the fourth inning by fanning Suzuki with a picture-perfect, 0-2 slider. He ran a 92-mph fastball past second baseman Ozzie Albies for another strikeout in the sixth.
The seventh inning presented more of a challenge. Markakis clapped a leadoff single. Kershaw lost control of a slider, which ran inside and hit Suzuki. The Braves could tie the game with one swing.
Kershaw climbed out of the hole, to start, by striking out third baseman Johan Camargo with a 1-2 fastball. Roberts stuck with Kershaw as Inciarte, a left-handed hitter, came up. Inciarte slapped a 2-1 slider on a line toward left field. The ball was intercepted by Taylor’s leap at shortstop. Taylor whirled to second base to pick off Markakis and end the inning.
“I got bailed out there in the seventh inning,” Kershaw said. “Inciarte hit that ball hard. But I’ll take it.”
Kershaw came back for the eighth. After a leadoff single by shortstop Dansby Swanson, Kershaw struck out former Dodger Charlie Culberson with a curveball and froze outfielder Ronald Acuna, Jr., with a 91-mph fastball. He was a pitch away from finishing the frame when Albies splashed a single into center field.
The hit prompted Freeman’s walk into the batter’s box, Roberts’ visit to the mound and Kershaw’s futile argument to stay. Into the breach came Jansen. Freeman lifted a 93-mph cutter into center for the third out.
“You have one of the best hitters in baseball, Freddie Freeman,” Jansen said. “It’s like go-time. It’s me with my best pitch against him. Luckily, he flied out.”