As the fans populating the lower bowl of Petco Park rose for the seventh-inning stretch, two Dodgers pitchers were in motion. The bullpen door opened as Erik Goeddel jogged to the mound looking to protect an eventual 8-2 victory over the San Diego Padres. Weaving through his teammates in the dugout, bound for the clubhouse, was Clayton Kershaw.
In his fourth start back from the disabled list, and only his fifth outing since May 1, Kershaw kept the scoreboard spotless even if his performance was not flawless. He gave up two singles across six scoreless innings. He struck out five batters. The Padres could not advance a runner past second base.
“It was a good day,” Kershaw said. “Definitely a step in the right direction.”
The outing might have been relegated to the dustbin of Kershaw’s career, an effective if unspectacular night, had he not reached two milestones. When Kershaw finished the second inning, he surpassed 2,000 innings in his 11-year career. And in the third inning, he faced former catcher and longtime friend A.J. Ellis for the first time. Ellis could not dent Kershaw in his two at-bats. The rest of the Padres fared little better.
The offense arrived in a fourth-inning flurry. Back with the team for the first time since tearing a knee ligament in May 2017, Andrew Toles provided a two-run double and raced home for another run in a five-run blitz. Matt Kemp supplied a sacrifice fly in the seventh inning and Justin Turner tacked on a two-run single in the eighth. The Dodgers pulled back within half a game of first-place Arizona in the National League West.
Kershaw continued to make progress after sitting out a month because of biceps tendinitis and another three weeks because of a lower-back strain. He has struck out 17 batters in 20 innings, with a 2.25 earned-run average. He has yet to pitch into the seventh inning, but he logged 89 pitches Monday.
“He felt strong enough to keep going,” manager Dave Roberts said. “So that was a good thing. Getting him to 90 pitches was a win for us.”
“Should have done it a lot sooner,” Kershaw said. “I just keep getting hurt. But it’s cool. It sounds like a lot of innings. Hopefully, I’ve got a few more left.”
Ellis led off the third inning. He first caught Kershaw in 2007 when they teamed together in double-A Jacksonville. They rose to the majors in 2008. Ellis crouched behind the plate for Kershaw 118 times, nearly twice as many as any other catcher. Their friendship ran deep, as the two bonded over faith and family.
The two men wept Aug. 25, 2016, when the Dodgers traded Ellis to Philadelphia for catcher Carlos Ruiz. The shock took long to fade. Ellis struggled to watch the Dodgers play in the postseason without him. His connection to Kershaw stayed strong even after signing with Miami in 2017; other Marlins joked that Ellis spent more time watching Kershaw’s starts on his iPad than he did watching his own team.
Ellis returned to the division this season. He roomed with Kershaw in Phoenix during spring training. He had managed to avoid facing him in a game until Monday. Ellis trotted to the plate without fanfare. Neither man tipped his cap nor gestured toward one another. Kershaw handcuffed Ellis with a 2-and-2 slider; Ellis pounded it into the ground for an out.
“That was miserable,” Kershaw said. “I’ve faced a lot of ex-teammates and friends in this game, but probably nobody with the history that I have with A.J. We both kind of decided that hopefully that was our last time to have to do that.”
Toles entered the batter’s box with two runners aboard for the second time. In the second inning, manager Andy Green had Toles intentionally walked to load the bases. Kershaw grounded out to end the inning. In the fourth, Green allowed Toles to bat, even after Taylor stole second and left first base unoccupied. Toles punished Green and the Padres for the opening.
Perdomo flung a 95-mph fastball down the middle. Toles responded with a rocket off the left-field wall. Two runs scored. Toles scooted into second base for his first hit in 14 months.
“He probably wasn’t trying to throw a pitch down the middle,” Toles said.
Added Bellinger: “Tolesy being Tolesy — all he does is hit.”
He had enough energy left to create another run. Toles went to third when Kershaw grounded out. When Joc Pederson hit a sharp grounder to second baseman Jose Pirela, Toles ran on contact. The throw from Pirela was not true. Ellis left his crouch to retrieve it. Toles careened across the plate safely for the fifth run of the inning.
Kershaw buckled down after giving up a single to Perdomo in the third. He did not give up another hit until Wil Myers singled with one out in the sixth. The hit did not rattle Kershaw. He popped up outfielder Hunter Renfroe with a 92-mph fastball and induced a groundout from first baseman Eric Hosmer with a slider.