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Column: Clayton Kershaw’s competitive fire rages even as Dodger fans show him love

Clayton Kershaw pitches for the Dodgers.
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw had a rough sixth inning against the Atlanta Braves on Monday but still earned the victory.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
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As Clayton Kershaw descended the mound, the fans rose to their feet.

By the time Kershaw crossed foul territory on his way to his team’s dugout Monday night, most of Dodger Stadium was serenading him with a standing ovation.

“I honestly was a little too frustrated to notice,” Kershaw said.

He might be 34 and more reflective than he used to be, but his fundamental nature remains the same.

Kershaw is a competitor.

So, five days after pitching seven perfect innings in his first start of the season, he was smoldering in the wake of his departure from the Dodgers’ 7-4 victory over the Atlanta Braves.

Others in uniform stayed clear of him as he sat on the bench.

In his first at-bat against his former team, Freddie Freeman hit a home run and helped power the Dodgers to a 7-4 win over the Atlanta Braves.

April 18, 2022

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“Just the sixth inning,” Kershaw later said of the inning in which he was charged with three of the four runs he allowed.

While Kershaw said he appreciated the standing ovation, his inability to embrace it in real time pointed to the sincerity of something he said in spring training.

“I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t think I was healthy,” he said last month. “I also didn’t want to come back as a ‘We just want you here to tip your cap.’ I don’t want any part of that. I’m going to contribute.”

The degree to which he can contribute remains in question, and not just because of health concerns.

He effectively used his slider to hold the Braves scoreless for four innings, but with his average fastball velocity down to 90 mph, he was punished for mistakes he made over the next two.

Guillermo Heredia launched a ball into the Dodgers’ bullpen in the fifth inning.

Facing the top of the Braves’ order for the third time in the sixth, Kershaw threw a down-the-middle fastball that was whacked over the fence by Ozzie Albies.

Matt Olson followed by redirecting a low-and-away slider to center field for a single.

Austin Riley lined a curveball down the right-field line for a double that advanced Olson to third base, and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts called on Brusdar Graterol to replace Kershaw.

Playing against the Braves for the first time since leaving Atlanta to sign with the Dodgers, Freddie Freeman shows plenty of love for his old teammates.

April 18, 2022

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Graterol allowed Riley and Olson to score.

“My stuff wasn’t as crisp,” Kershaw said. “I don’t know if I ran out of gas or whatever, but they made me pay that sixth inning, for sure.”

Kershaw was charged with four runs and six hits in five-plus innings. He struck out seven. He still hasn’t walked a batter this season.

“I thought I threw the ball OK,” he said.

The optimistic view of what happened is that because the lockout shortened spring training to three weeks, Kershaw is still building up his arm. That was the justification Kershaw offered last week when defending Roberts’ decision to take him out after seven innings with a perfect game intact.

Kershaw threw 87 pitches, seven more than he did against the Minnesota Twins in his season debut.

“Eleven of the 12 innings [pitched this season], I’ll take,” Kershaw said. “Just shows that I got a little more work to do, get my stamina built up ready to go.”

Or, the sixth inning could be a sign that he’s now the kind of pitcher against whom a good offensive team such as the Braves can get comfortable the third time through their order.

Of the 11 swings and misses Kershaw generated, none were in the sixth inning. By then, the Braves had stopped chasing pitches out of the strike zone.

But considering his return from an arm injury that sidelined him for the entire postseason last year, Kershaw chose to be upbeat.

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“For the most part, there’s definitely some good things happening for myself,” he said. “It’s just that one inning is frustrating at this point.”

Clayton Kershaw struck out 13 in seven perfect innings for the Dodgers before giving way to the bullpen. Cody Bellinger hits one of four Dodgers homers.

April 13, 2022

A free agent over the winter, Kershaw re-signed with the Dodgers on a one-year, $17-million contract.

While maintaining his trademark intensity, Kershaw said he is trying to slow down and enjoy certain moments.

“As you get older and you’re kind of on a year-to-year basis with your career, I think you definitely take it in a little bit more,” he said. “Opening day in Colorado, I took that in. That was fun. The home opener here, kind of take it all in. Getting to pitch at Dodger Stadium, yeah, all that stuff. I think I definitely am taking it in more than I did early for sure.”

His win Monday night was the 100th of his career at Dodger Stadium.

Kershaw could reach another milestone in his next start. With 2,690 career strikeouts, he is only six short of Don Sutton’s franchise record.

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