Clayton Kershaw, flashing an ear-to-ear smile, his hair drenched from the sweat from his six innings and another milestone, joined his teammates prodding the rookie to absorb the love. And so Will Smith, fresh off his latest game-changing blast, reluctantly scooted up the dugout steps at Dodger Stadium. He tipped his batting helmet and took it in. The Dodgers were winning again because he did it again.
The latest installment in the catcher’s expanding catalog of dramatic home runs came in the sixth inning of the Dodgers’ 8-2 win over the San Diego Padres on Thursday. The bases were loaded with two outs. The Dodgers had finally chased left-hander Joey Lucchesi. The Padres summoned Trey Wingenter, a right-hander, to face Smith.
The fourth pitch of the encounter was a fastball up over the outer half of the plate. Smith applied a powerful, compact swing. It looked like it could have been a long out. Wingenter thought so, and pointed up to it. But the ball kept carrying and landed over the center field wall.
“I wasn’t sure,” Smith said. “I didn’t know if I hit it too high or not.”
A day after supplying a go-ahead three-run home run in the ninth inning against the Colorado Rockies, Smith fist-pumped as he rounded first base. Dodger Stadium shook. It was his sixth home run in 48 plate appearances. Two have been walk-offs. Two others have given the Dodgers a late lead. He added a double in the eighth inning and has conjured memories from another rookie splash earlier this decade.
“I’m cautious to make this comparison, but Puig was like this when he came up,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “That’s the only time I’ll compare Will Smith and Yasiel Puig.”
Kershaw watched his batterymate’s blast from the dugout with gratitude. It meant he was in line for his 10th win, one he secured despite a rare round of imprecision.
Kershaw walked a season-high five batters in six innings. He struggled to land his curveball for a strike. And yet he managed to limit San Diego to two runs and six hits as the Dodgers’ lead in the National League West ballooned to 16 games.
Along the way, he accumulated five strikeouts. The fourth tied him with Sandy Koufax for third all-time in Dodgers history. It came, fittingly, on a looping curveball to strand two runners in the fifth inning. The fifth strikeout, the 2,397th of his career, was a three-pitch knockout and jumped him to third on his own. Kershaw reached the total in 2,2191/3 career innings. Koufax retired in 1966 after 2,3241/3 innings. Only Don Sutton and Don Drysdale sit ahead of Kershaw.
“It’s really cool, man,” said Kershaw, who took the ball from his tie-breaking strikeout home. “I don’t know what to say either other than it’s a special thing.”
The clubs exchanged solo home runs in the second inning. Hunter Renfroe went first, slamming a slider from Kershaw for his 30th homer. Cody Bellinger responded with one to snap a 12-game skid without hitting a ball over the wall. It was Bellinger’s 35th this season. He remains on pace for more than 50.
The Padres, specifically their young star shortstop, ran into outs at third base to spoil opportunities twice in the early innings. Fernando Tatis Jr. made the gaffes in the first and third innings. They allowed Kershaw to stay afloat despite his worst bout of command trouble this season.
The left-hander walked two batters in the third inning and one in each of the next three frames. The Padres capitalized on the imprecision just once, in the third, and left seven runners on base with Kershaw on the mound.
Kershaw, as a result, pushed through at least six innings for the 19th consecutive start to begin the season. He exited with 87 pitches and a 2-1 deficit because Lucchesi, a Kershaw admirer, was silencing the Dodgers’ bats. That soon changed once Lucchesi was bounced and the Dodgers’ rookie catcher stole the show again.
“When he comes up,” Roberts said, “guys want to watch him.”