If this isn't Kershaw's apex, look out

June, 24, 2014
Jun 24
10:12
PM PT
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- At this moment in Clayton Kershaw's career, this is what struggling looks like: eight innings, six hits, no runs, one walk and eight strikeouts.

After doing that to the Kansas City Royals in the Los Angeles Dodgers' 2-0 win Tuesday night, Kershaw used the following phrases at various times to describe his evening in the heartland:

"Fastball command was kind of all over the place."

"It just wasn't going where I wanted it to."

"Erratic."

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
AP Photo/Colin E. BraleyClayton Kershaw got mad at himself on a strikeout Tuesday because the pitch the opposing batter swung at was a ball.
And the funny thing is, the Dodgers who were around him Tuesday saw the same things he was feeling. Catcher A.J. Ellis said Kershaw's fastball was catching way more of the plate than, "either he or I would have liked." Manager Don Mattingly said Kershaw looked as if he were "fighting it," on the mound. Third baseman Justin Turner wondered whether Kershaw was having trouble adjusting to the mound at Kauffman Stadium. The Dodgers hadn't been to Kansas City since 2005.

So in a span of six days we have the two extremes of Kershaw at this moment in time: There is Kershaw when everything is going right and Kershaw when something's a little bit askew.

On one pole is arguably the best-pitched game in baseball history -- a no-walk, 15-strikeout no-hitter last Wednesday that, despite plenty of acclaim, can probably safely be called underrated.

And on the other pole is a ho-hum eight-inning shutout?

To be fair, there was that May 17 start in Arizona, where Kershaw gave up seven runs and was knocked out in the second inning. But it's looking more like a meaningless anomaly with each day that passes, a bad day for a pitcher ramping up into the season. It was only his third start since missing five weeks on the disabled list because of an injury to his upper back.

When Kershaw spent all that time on the disabled list, it seemed as if he might have removed himself from the Cy Young race. The question now is whether he has put himself in the race to start the All-Star Game.

If you lower the filter to 60 innings pitched, Kershaw ranks third in the NL in ERA (2.24) and second in WHIP (0.91). Many NL pitchers have thrown another 35 innings or more than Kershaw, but he's still 10th in strikeouts. He's 4-0 with a 0.33 ERA in his last four starts.

The Dodgers were off last Thursday, giving Kershaw 24 hours in San Diego to celebrate his no-hitter at dinner with his wife, Ellen, and a few of his teammates. According to Ellis, Kershaw was the first Dodgers player to arrive at Petco Park the next afternoon (or was it morning?) for a 7:10 p.m. PT game. There's a reason -- in addition to the perfect pitcher's build, elite hand-eye coordination and left-handedness -- why Kershaw is among the game's immortals on his best days and simply dominant on some bad ones.

"His consistency, his dedication to his routine, his unwavering desire to win are what's going to separate him from everyone else for a long time," Ellis said.

It appears Kershaw's down time in April and May might prove to be good news for the Dodgers and bad news for the rest of the NL West. The Dodgers are only three games behind the San Francisco Giants, having lopped off 6 1/2 games off the Giants’ lead in 16 days, and now have their ace at what might be the apex of his career.

The Dodgers were worried this spring they were going to have to monitor Kershaw's workload closely to keep him fresh in case they have meaningful games to contest in September and October. Now that seems moot, especially if Kershaw remains this efficient. He managed his no-hitter in only 107 pitches.

"I guess you would feel stronger, but I don't ever really feel bad strength-wise," Kershaw said.

Kershaw might be the most stubborn player in baseball. In his case, it's an obstinacy that meshes perfectly with the team concept. When things aren't going well, as they weren't at times Tuesday in Kansas City, he digs his heels in further. At one point he was furious at himself for striking out Lorenzo Cain because the pitch Cain swung at was a ball.

"He just keeps going, uses something different, and he's not giving in to anything that's going on out there," Mattingly said.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Yasiel Puig
BA HR RBI R
.296 16 69 92
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Gonzalez 27
RBIA. Gonzalez 116
RY. Puig 92
OPSY. Puig .863
WC. Kershaw 21
ERAC. Kershaw 1.77
SOC. Kershaw 239