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Column: Enraged Clayton Kershaw balked, but Dodgers made right move to pull him

Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw was pulled after five innings against the Diamondbacks on Thursday afternoon.

Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw was pulled after five innings against the Diamondbacks on Thursday afternoon.

(Stephen Dunn / Getty Images)

Clayton Kershaw jabbed his left arm through the air, again and again, his body twisting with challenging aggression.

Only he was wasn’t standing on a pitching mound; he was stalking in front of a bat rack.

And he wasn’t facing the Arizona Diamondbacks; he was staring down Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly.

When Kershaw was removed for pinch-hitter Austin Barnes on Thursday afternoon, trailing, 3-0, after just five innings and 80 pitches, he immediately confronted Mattingly in the dugout and began gesturing and arguing.

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It was the earliest he had been removed from a game this season. It was as mad as anybody had ever seen him.

Kershaw, as usual, wanted a chance to keep battling even though the temperatures were in the 80s and the playoffs are only a couple of weeks away.

The Dodgers, for once, were smarter than that.

While Kershaw’s teammates gave him with the 6-3 victory by scoring six runs in the bottom of the fifth, it was the Dodgers who were the big winners.

Somebody in the organization — Mattingly, surely with the full support of baseball boss Andrew Friedman — finally acknowledged that if Kershaw wants to stay hot in October, he needs to chill now.

“It just got to the point, the pitch count, the weather, what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to accomplish, Donnie made a decision, I think it was right one,” catcher A.J. Ellis said.

For once, somebody in the organization acknowledged the elephant in the last two Dodger postseasons — Kershaw’s meltdowns against the St. Louis Cardinals weren’t just about brutal luck and bad pitching, but perhaps also a weariness from working too much.

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Last season, Kershaw threw 117 pitches in his last regular-season start and never survived the National League division series. In 2013, he threw at least 99 pitches in three of his last four starts, then ran out of gas in the National League Championship Series.

As Kershaw approaches his career high in innings pitched — eight-inning outings in his final two starts would equal it — the Dodgers seemingly have recognized that every bullet he uses now is one he won’t have in New York or Pittsburgh or, heaven forbid, St. Louis again.

Already, he’s showing a bit of wear and tear. In his last two starts, he’s allowed six runs and 13 hits in a dozen innings, all in the wake of his career-high 132-pitch game against the San Francisco Giants on Sept. 2.

“All our guys we want to be careful with, especially this time of year, we try to monitor as much as we can,” Mattingly said, adding, “But this was more of a baseball decision today; we’re down three runs, we’ve got to try to score.”

Whatever the stated reason, it was clearly not only a baseball decision, but a Kershaw decision, a playoff decision, and the right decision.

So Mattingly yanked him. And Kershaw yakked back. It was great theater, no harm done, typically tough Kershaw, surprisingly tougher Dodgers, especially because Mattingly later admitted this was the most frustrated emotion he had ever seen from his ace.

“A little bit,” Mattingly said, which, in understated Donnie Speak, means yes.

The only disappointing part of the afternoon occurred after the game, in a Dodger Stadium hallway crowded with media, when Kershaw refused to discuss the incident. By doing so, he left the moment open to speculation and left his teammates to answer questions he could have handled with a quick comment.

“I’m not going to talk about that at all,” Kershaw said. “If you guys want to talk about the game, I’ll be more than happy to talk about that.”

But the confrontation was the game, the incident occurring in the middle of it.

“It’s between Donnie and I, nobody else needs to know,” Kershaw said.

Yeah, it was between Donnie and him and a million eyeballs on every highlight show on every sports channel. By not providing closure on the confrontation, Kershaw leaves open the idea he is angry the Dodgers would have the audacity to treat him more delicately after his last two October collapses. Other folks will wonder whether he is mad because he’s worried this is a sign the Dodgers will put him on a shorter leash in October.

The guess here is that Kershaw simply hates coming out of any game, especially this game, when his curveball floated and the Diamondbacks hit him for three runs and six hits in those five innings. The truth is that he was probably frustrated and just had to give Mattingly an earful.

At least, the Dodgers hope that’s the truth.

“That’s what you love about Clayton, that’s what makes him great. He never thinks he’s done, he always thinks he can get the next guy out, the next three guys out,” Ellis said. “He always thinks he’s ready to get things turned around and get on a roll.”

The Dodgers needed to slow that roll. They’ve finally stood up and done it. In one convincing move, Mattingly saved his ace for the postseason while saving Kershaw from himself.

It was the best pitch of the day.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

MORE DODGERS NEWS:

Dodgers again turn their eyes and ears to Clayton Kershaw

Dodgers aren’t counting on Yasiel Puig returning before season ends

Jimmy Rollins returns to Dodgers’ lineup, says he’s still starter at short


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