LOS ANGELES – What comes of a conversation of 110 pitches or more than 110 pitches, of clinging to your ace or buffering him, of the baseball inevitability that at some point one must believe in the thing hardly anyone else does, well, all that ruined the Los Angeles Dodgers again on Monday night.
All of that saved the San Francisco Giants for a night.
So that the people who stood and cheered for one final strike, one last bit of perfection or fortune or dumb luck, they instead dropped their heads and turned and hoped maybe they could beat a few in their row to their cars, booing over their shoulders as they did.
If not in Washington, then in Los Angeles, where division favorites – but not, curiously, division leaders – are drowning in the sort of pitching imprecision wrought by injury or short-sightedness or the strain of picking up too many innings over too long a time. It’s a problem. And now October might seem a very long way away.
Kenley Jansen’s heart wobbled and now the finishing kick the Dodgers have been counting on for nearly five months, that they’ve convinced themselves of, will have to wait. Except they’ll play more baseball games in the meantime, and if the late innings remain chaotic, then where will Dave Roberts turn when there are three more outs to get, or six?
They’d prefer not to think of themselves as quite this fragile. Next man up and all that courageous talk. Four days ago in Colorado they’d led by a run in the seventh inning and lost. Three days ago they’d led by two in the ninth and lost. Two days ago they’d been tied in the ninth and lost. And on Monday, Clayton Kershaw having thrown those 110 pitches and prepared for more – “Um, I mean I would have stayed in,” he said. “Doc made his choice.” – they’d returned to L.A. and led by a run in the ninth before losing by three. The man on the mound was lefty Scott Alexander, but he was only the most recent, the next man up in the carnival game.
In four days they’d lost three they should have won and one they could have won, they’d pulled two men from their rotation – Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling – and assigned them to the bullpen, they’d tried to hand the ninth inning to one guy and then the next, and they’d hoped to manage themselves into favorable matchups, and the results were identical. The one reliever acquired at the deadline – John Axford, who’d once been a closer, no longer carries that pedigree and in 3 1/3 innings as a Dodger has an ERA just south of 17 – also has a broken leg, it was announced Monday night.
If he’s part of the cavalry he’ll be requiring a horse.
Roberts pursed his lips. His previous two teams here had won the NL West by 11 and four games. The team that won by four games was eight games ahead of the rest of the division with a week to play. This year could prove to be more stressful.
“Well,” he said, “they’re going out there and they’re doing the best they can. They’re trying to make pitches. They’re in uncharted territory.
“We’re too good. We’re going to come back and fight. It’s baseball. You gotta keep going. You gotta keep trusting your players and expecting to win baseball games.”
Roberts’ decision to remove Kershaw was not unreasonable. Kershaw has not completed a game for 15 months. His season high for pitches is 112, in April. He’s been on and off the disabled list twice since.
When does one game become greater than the rest? After three games of unruly bullpen? More? Never?
“Kenley’s big shoes to fill,” Kershaw said. “We know that. … For now, we gotta keep plugging away.”
The pitchers who come after him, he said, are, “Guys we trust.”
On a Monday night, in the heart of the NL West, not all the way at the top or the bottom, the Dodgers and Giants lined up here behind a couple .500 pitchers. The stadium was slow to fill and never actually did.
The Giants, see, are merely average, or have been so far. The Dodgers are a little better, but have their own issues. That Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner shared the mound seemed a good enough reason for the inch-at-a-time slog up the Harbor Freeway. There was room in the bleachers. There was a breeze.
Injuries and circumstance – Bumgarner keeps crashing into things, or having things crash into him, for one – seemed to have dampened a matchup that for a decade helped define the NL West. Kershaw was making his 18th start in what will be his third consecutive season interrupted by days on the disabled list. Bumgarner, his 13th start. They remain excellent pitchers, leaders of their franchises, spearheads for whatever happens next, over the coming weeks.
So, they, too, inch along – toward recovery, their full selves, that last little something that comes with their bull-headed passion. Toward the sort of pitching they provided on this Monday night. Kershaw struck out nine and walked none.
“I don’t like the word ‘vintage,’” Kershaw said. “Makes me feel …”
“Just doing what I’m supposed to do,” he finished.
They do share ERA’s in the twos and ought to have been treated better by their records. The slightest reluctance is borne not so much of the results, but of the names on their backs and the decade-long standards that come with those, among those standards being the resolve to stack thirty-some starts upon thirty-some starts upon thirty-some starts.
The summers get longer. The journey more arduous, more vengeful. The bodies, perhaps, slightly less elastic. Kershaw is 30. Bumgarner is 29. Too young to assume anything but mid-career lulls, luck run the other way for a time.
It was, then, on this mid-August night, on International Left-Handers Day, Kershaw stomping and relentless, Bumgarner fluid and glowering, still very much a showdown. Did you know the original Latin word for “left-handed” was “sinister”?
Kershaw, in the fourth inning, drove in the Dodgers’ second run with a bloop hit that landed along the left-field line. Two Giants collided, Brandon Crawford low and Gorkys Hernandez high. And Kershaw earnestly charged around second base, knees high, torso upright, eyes on third base. He was out by the length of a city bus.
Bumgarner, in the second inning, had Yasiel Puig fly to left field on a cutter that sounded OK off the bat but died without fanfare. Puig flipped and slapped at his bat, enraged at his failure. Bumgarner hates that. He glared. He grinned. He shook his head. He walked away.
For six innings, Kershaw plunged himself into delivery after delivery. Bumgarner swept and soared into the same. He struck out four and walked two. Soon, if the time hasn’t arrived already, the notion will come to San Francisco and Los Angeles that to lose a Bumgarner start, a Kershaw start, is to cede a day to destiny. Whatever that may be.
Probably why Kershaw, after those six innings, pitched a seventh. Then an eighth. And then put up what appeared from a distance to be a spirited fight for a ninth, which he was not granted. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt had delivered the news. Manager Dave Roberts confirmed it. After some thought, Kershaw accepted a hug from his catcher. His final pitch, his 110th, had resulted in a roller near the third-base line. He’d leapt at it, spun and thrown out Hunter Pence by a step. The crowd had stood for the final few pitches of the at-bat, it too perhaps beginning to realize the cooler breeze meant the season might be turning. Fall isn’t so far off.
What’s left, it appears, because there seems to be no other option, is to believe. That Jansen will return before too long. That four games do not kill a season. That there’s an answer out behind that gate in the meantime. That the chaos will end. That it must.
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