On Wednesday night, with Bochy in the other dugout, Kershaw continued to both underscore the absurdity of the initial snub and suggest that it in fact royally ticked him off. Kershaw struck out 15 Giants in a 132-pitch complete game, another chunk of forceful evidence that Kershaw holds the title Ellis bestowed upon him in July.
In 10 starts since the first all-star rosters were revealed, Kershaw has gone 7-0 with a 0.90 ERA while striking out 104 of the 290 batters he’s faced over 80 innings. His season ERA has shrunk to 2.18, and with a month left in the season he has already set new career-high with 251 strikeouts. He leads all pitchers – and all players aside from Bryce Harper and Josh Donaldson – with 7.2 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs.com.
Kershaw, who eventually made the all-star team as an injury replacement, has yielded zero or one runs in nine of the 10 starts since he didn’t make the original roster. The most epic sequence came Wednesday night, as he seized the National League West race by the neck.
In the ninth inning, Matt Duffy and Buster Posey poked consecutive singles against him in the ninth inning. Kershaw clung to a 2-1 lead. The Dodgers held a 5 ½-game lead over the Giants, looking for a sweep and a knockout blow. Manager Don Mattingly trudged to the mound. Pitchers hummed in the Dodgers bullpen.
“How are you doing?” Mattingly asked him.
“I’m good,” Kershaw replied.
Mattingly headed back to the dugout, the ball still in Kershaw’s hands. He fired his 128th pitch at Marlon Byrd, an 89-mph slider Byrd fouled off for strike one. Kershaw reached 91 miles per hour with another slider-cutter hybrid and hit 95 with his fastball on his 130th pitch. Finally, on Pitch 132, Kershaw buried an 89-mph slider in the dirt, and Byrd swung over it for strike three.
“That’s just the MVP doing MVP things,” Dodgers pitcher Brett Anderson tweeted.
Kershaw’s masterpiece kept him steaming toward his third straight Cy Young award, an honor that seemed to be slipping from his grasp for the first half of the season. Coming off his massive workload from the 2013 and 2014 seasons, he didn’t record an out past the seventh inning until June 6. He surrendered 11 homers in his first 17 starts, two more than he allowed all of the 2014 season. He was still great, but he wasn’t Kershaw.
He is again Kershaw, the best pitcher on the planet, the most dangerous weapon in the sport. He has surpassed Max Scherzer and joined teammate Zack Greinke, who sports a microscopic 1.59 ERA, at the head of the NL Cy Young race. The only things that would prevent Kershaw from another trophy would be Greinke’s excellence or a blatant show of voter fatigue. Kershaw could become the first pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2002 to win three straight Cy Youngs, a run made more impressive by his win in 2011 and runner-up finish, to R.A. Dickey in 2012. (That year, Kershaw pitched almost the same number of innings and had a 150-139 edge in ERA+.)
The amazing thing about Kershaw’s recent dominance is that he is showing signs of improvement. He started toying with a cutter in the second half of the season, which he can bend over the outside corner to right-handed batters, and the results have been devastating.
Wednesday night, Kershaw induced 35 swing-and-misses from the Giants, the most of any pitcher in a single start in 10 years. Kershaw has recorded 466 whiffs this season, already 37 more than in 2013, his previous career best. His 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings outpace his previous career-high by nearly a full strikeout.
Think about this sentence: Clayton Kershaw is getting harder to hit. The best, somehow, is getting better.