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Clayton Kershaw is off his game just enough for Dodgers to lose to Giants

Clayton Kershaw is off his game just enough for Dodgers to lose to Giants
Giants catcher Buster Posey hits a solo home run as Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw, left, reacts during the third inning on May 1. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Clayton Kershaw tucked his chin to his chest as he walked off the diamond. For six innings of a 4-3 Dodgers loss Monday night, the San Francisco Giants had hounded him, spoiling his formidable pitches and punishing his faulty ones. If he looked weary, it was because his opponents allowed him little room to relax.

"Tonight, I wasn't great," Kershaw said. "But they had something to do with it as well."

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The final line on Kershaw should not incite panic. He gave up four runs and eight hits. The Giants swatted two home runs. He required 104 pitches to collect 18 outs, which hinted at the inefficiency of his evening. It was an average performance for a pitcher who resides on a plane above the ordinary.

Yet Monday marked the second time this season Kershaw (4-2, 2.62 earned-run average) hinted at something resembling mortality. Colorado bashed three home runs off him in his second start of the season. In this outing, his sixth in 2017, he again appeared susceptible to extra-base hits off his secondary offerings. His early mistakes proved decisive as the Dodgers' offense sputtered against San Francisco starter Johnny Cueto.

After capturing a sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies over the weekend, the Dodgers (14-13) saw a four-game winning streak end. The streak began last week in San Francisco, where the Dodgers split a four-game series, closing it out with a victory Thursday. The schedule called for three more games this week against their division rival, who reside in the basement of the National League West.

Beset by injuries and general malaise, the Giants offense still exhausted Kershaw on Monday. He stumbled in the first inning. A single by rookie Christian Arroyo, on a slider that did not dart far enough inside, set the stage for outfielder Hunter Pence. Kershaw dug his own hole: He hung a curveball. Pence volleyed the pitch over the left-field fence.

"It just wasn't a great night," Kershaw said.

The Dodgers chipped away in the bottom of the inning, notching a run in ungainly but effective fashion. Andrew Toles singled. Corey Seager walked. A drive to the warning track by Justin Turner advanced Toles to third, and he scored on a ground out by Yasmani Grandal.

Kershaw tied the score on his own accord. He came up with two outs in the second inning, after rookie Cody Bellinger had led off with a ringing ground-rule double off Cueto. Bellinger appeared likely to be stranded after Yasiel Puig flied out and Chase Utley struck out.

Then Kershaw intervened. He punched a 91-mph fastball into left field for an opposite-field single. Using the lengthy strides created by his 6-foot-4 frame, Bellinger loped toward home. The throw from Giants outfielder Gorkys Hernandez pulled catcher Buster Posey a couple steps up the third-base line. Bellinger sneaked through the void and swam across the plate.

Bellinger credited the direction from Toles in the on-deck circle. "Toles was telling me to slide on the left side," Bellinger said. "So I just listened to him."

For Kershaw, prowess with the bat could not offset an inability to finish his slider. Against right-handed hitters, Kershaw uses his slider in two ways. He either aims for the hitter's back foot, diving low and inside, or tries a backed-up version, which nips the outer edge of the strike zone.

What he threw to Posey in the third inning fit neither description. The pitch floated over the middle of the plate. It drifted inside, rather than darting downward. Posey crushed a solo home run.

"The late depth, the late bite, whatever, to the slider, just wasn't there," manager Dave Roberts said.

A different sort of malady befell Kershaw in the fifth. Hernandez dropped a bunt in front of the mound and sprinted toward first. Kershaw spiked the throw, which handed Hernandez second base. In the next at-bat, Kershaw lost a seven-pitch duel with Arroyo. The rookie ripped an RBI single to pad San Francisco's lead.

By then, Cueto was rolling. The hip-shaking right-hander retired 13 in a row after Kershaw's hit in the third. "It seems like there were a lot of early swings, out of the strike zone, on pitches you can't really do a lot with," Roberts said.

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Cueto fell into trouble in the seventh. It started with an infield single by Adrian Gonzalez. Diving to retrieve the baseball, shortstop Eduardo Nunez sprawled in a heap while trying to make the throw. Bellinger extended the rally by laying down a bunt in the vacated area near third base, the second time he's done that since his arrival in the majors.

The threat stalled after Puig grounded into a fielder's choice and Utley struck out. The strikeout dropped Utley's batting average to .114. The man who could replace him as the second baseman, at least until Logan Forsythe returns from the disabled list, came up next. Chris Taylor delivered a pinch-hit RBI single to left.

To the mound came Giants manager Bruce Bochy. He conferred with his starter for a moment, then left the scene. Responsibility resided in Cueto's right arm as Toles stepped into the box. A seven-pitch at-bat ended when Toles rolled into a ground out down the first-base line.

"It was a grind for Clayton tonight," Roberts said. "But for us to still have a chance to win the game, that was good. We had a chance."

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes

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