LOS ANGELES -- Rick Honeycutt, the Los Angeles Dodgers' pitching coach, probably summed it up best following Friday night's game, a 7-6 victory over the Chicago White Sox before 40,432 at Dodger Stadium. Asked about the fact that Clayton Kershaw, the team's Cy Young Award-winning left-hander, hasn't been as sharp as we have come to expect in the month following his six-hit shutout of the St. Louis Cardinals on May 19, Honeycutt played along for a while, then threw out something to chew on.
"Expectations sometimes get a little out of whack, too," he said. "To expect what he did the second half of last year can be unrealistic."
Well, yes, it can. But adding fuel to those expectations was Kershaw's performance through the first nine starts of this season, when he went 4-1 with a 1.90 ERA and posted otherworldly numbers in two categories: a WHIP of 0.88 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio better than 4-to-1, culminating in that masterpiece against the Cardinals.
In five subsequent starts, though, Kershaw is 1-2 with a 4.73 ERA, a 1.36 WHIP and a still-pretty-outstanding strikeout-walk ratio better than 3-1. It's just not as outstanding as it was before. And when you have a track record like the one Kershaw has had since last year's All-Star break, people start asking questions when you're suddenly not as outstanding as you might have been before.
Especially when you are battling a well-documented case of plantar fasciitis in the very foot with which you push off the rubber.
"I feel fine," Kershaw said. "I just made a lot of mistakes [against the White Sox]. I had some guys 0-2 and couldn't put them away."
Was the foot a factor?
"It's fine," he said.
Kershaw, who previously had given up only six home runs in 88 1/3 innings this season, gave up two in six innings against the White Sox, to Adam Dunn and Alexei Ramirez, both when Kershaw was ahead in the count. The White Sox got to him for eight hits and five runs -- although one of those was unearned because of an easily avoidable throwing error by Dee Gordon -- and Kershaw threw two wild pitches, matching his previous total for the season.
But he also struck out seven, walked only two and, although the White Sox built a 5-1 lead against him, kept the Dodgers close enough that they were able to rally for a five-run sixth, momentarily putting Kershaw in line for an unlikely win, and again for the winning run in the eighth after the White Sox tied it with another Ramirez home run off Ronald Belisario.
Kershaw was coming off a fairly stellar start this past Saturday in Seattle, when he struck out a season-high 12 and gave up four hits over seven innings, but for the most part, his past month has been below his admittedly lofty usual standards. If there is a reason why, he couldn't identify it, and he wasn't willing to pin it on the foot.
Nor, for that matter, was manager Don Mattingly.
"I haven't even heard about the foot for a while," Mattingly said. "Before his last start, everybody made a big deal of it, and he went out and threw a [four]-hitter."
For his part, Honeycutt wasn't so dismissive.
"I can only go by what he tells me," Honeycutt said. "It is somewhat coincidental that it's during this stretch when it has been happening. But I do not see it changing his mechanics or his delivery. That is still pretty much the same. I have had [plantar fasciitis], although I didn't pitch with it. But if you're feeling pain somewhere, obviously it can [affect] something else."
Kershaw's makeup is such that he is loathe to make excuses of any kind. It is that same makeup that is largely responsible for his becoming the elite-level pitcher he has become. It is entirely possible, though, that he is telling the truth, that the foot really does affect only running and not pitching, and that there is no explanation for the way he has pitched of late -- even if the way he has pitched of late is still at a level most major league pitchers would love to get to.
It just isn't quite Cy Young level. Or, for that matter, Kershaw level.
"This game isn't easy," he said. "That is the great thing about it. Just because you have a couple of good starts doesn't mean you're going to keep having them. This game will humble you. That is the fun part about it. You have to keep battling and keep competing.
"And wins are wins."
And a win is exactly what the Dodgers got, what they have gotten a major league-best 41 times in their first 65 games this season and in 10 of the first 14 starts Kershaw has made. Ultimately, that was the bottom line Friday night. Because the Dodgers are off Monday, Kershaw's next start won't come until Thursday at Oakland, his second in a row on five days' rest. If he goes out and dominates, the what's-wrong-with-Kershaw questions likely will stop. If he goes out and just pitches well enough, as he did against the White Sox, they likely will continue, even if he wins.
It seems unfair, of course. But it comes with ascending to a level where you are considered one of the best starting pitchers -- maybe even the best starting pitcher -- in the league. It is to Kershaw's everlasting credit that he has ascended to that level, even if there are times when it feels a little like a curse.