Some blemishes still exist. His slider did not always cooperate. His curveball sometimes bent too much. His efficiency did not meet his own standard. But for five innings, and one simulated frame during a rain delay, in a 2-0 victory over the New York Yankees, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw resembled a version of himself.
For a team with World Series aspirations, few things matter more than the status of their left-handed cornerstone. After a rocky outing over the weekend in Miami, his first game back after missing two months with a herniated disk, Kershaw held the Yankees to one hit.
“His fastball seemed like it had more life than in Miami,” catcher Yasmani Grandal said. “It seemed like he was spotting it better. His slider was really good. His curveball, he was able to get it down. Miami was more of a ‘see what happens.’ This is more like, ‘OK, I’m back. And we’re ready to go.’”
Shut out Tuesday, the Dodgers (82-63) waited until the ninth inning to score the game’s first run. The team benefited from two Yankees errors. Justin Turner roped an RBI double after Corey Seager reached on an error. Turner scored when Yankees closer Dellin Betances threw away a ball tapped back to the mound.
And so the Dodgers boarded a flight for Phoenix in firm command of the National League West. Swept by San Diego this week, San Francisco now trails by five games. The Dodgers can clinch a fourth division title with any combination of 13 victories of their own plus losses by the Giants.
With three weeks left in the season, the team cannot yet look past San Francisco. But the players can begin to imagine an October where Kershaw joins fellow left-hander Rich Hill as a two-headed menace for opposing clubs. The outing by Kershaw on Wednesday raised his spirits after his frustration about his three-inning, 66-pitch performance against the Marlins.
“I was a little bit better today than the last time out,” Kershaw said. “Good to go back out there for five innings. Had a little bit better command of the offspeed stuff. Overall, a little bit better today.”
His outing Friday in Miami revealed the organization’s caution in bringing him back to the majors. The game did not trigger alarms, but it did not exactly assuage the concern about Kershaw’s condition. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt told Manager Dave Roberts that Kershaw’s bullpen session in between starts was encouraging. Roberts intended to study the command of Kershaw’s fastball and the depth of his slider to gauge his readiness.
Kershaw acquired control as the game progressed. He barreled over the Yankees lineup during his first turn through the order. He pumped first-pitch strikes to six of his first nine batters.
The weather delayed his dominance. The skies opened up during the top of the fourth inning. After Andre Ethier hit into a double play with the bases loaded, the grounds crew covered the diamond with a tarp.
Nine minutes later, after the rain slackened and the workers rolled up the tarp, Kershaw jogged to the mound to warm up. He tore through the fourth in 14 pitches, stringing together four perfect innings.
“He looked like the Clayton Kershaw we all know tonight,” Turner said. “So that’s a positive sign.”
A thornier situation soon arose. The rain caused another delay in the fifth. This one lasted 48 minutes, long enough for Kershaw to throw an inning indoors. If the delay had lasted 10 minutes longer, Roberts said, Kershaw would not have returned to the game. “It was close,” Roberts said.
The next few minutes erased any dilemma for Roberts. A grounder from Starlin Castro whistled toward third base, skipped off the dirt, clipped Turner’s bare hand and bounced into the outfield. The perfect game was gone.
Two pitches later, so was the no-hitter. Kershaw fired a curveball that dipped at the knees of third baseman Chase Headley. Headley smacked a single through the left side of the infield, to avoid a reprise of Hill’s night in Miami on Saturday.
“Under the circumstances, I don’t think there would have been an opportunity to go much deeper,” Roberts said. “But it did happen to cross my mind.”
Kershaw would not allow the Yankees to break the deadlock. A bunt moved both runners into scoring position. They would not advance. Able to manipulate his slider into the zone, he fanned Rob Refsnyder and designated hitter Austin Romine. Kershaw pumped his fist after Romine swung through the last slider.
“To see Clayton go out there and do what he does,” Roberts said, “it was a huge lift for us.”