Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw let it ride in their biggest series to date

LOS ANGELES -- As Mark Walter, the principal owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was finding his way out of the stadium Wednesday night, he saw a group of security guards standing outside his team's clubhouse.

"Who just swept the Giants?!" Walter yelled, high-fiving each of the men in turn.

It's probably fair to say the Dodgers are a rather competitive organization, starting with the billionaire finance guy at the top, but pretty evenly distributed all the way down, from the front office to the video guy. If you were to administer personality tests to everyone associated with the enterprise, however, you might find the fiercest competitors of all occupy the manager's office and Clayton Kershaw's locker stall.

Though Don Mattingly comes across as a somewhat shy, easygoing Indiana guy most of the time, there have been enough lip-reading opportunities during broadcasts this season to realize he's a different guy when the games are in progress. A couple of times, he has made comments to umpires that involved inappropriate acts and unkind insinuations.

As for Kershaw, you only had to glance at him when Mattingly walked out of the dugout after Buster Posey had just lined Kershaw's 127th pitch into center field in the ninth inning Wednesday night. Kershaw turned his back, kicked at the mound and stomped around, bracing for a gesture he didn't want to see: Mattingly raising his hand to summon a reliever.

Mattingly joked he feared he might have had to dodge Kershaw's punch -- presumably a left hook -- if he had taken the ball from the big lefty just then. But in fact, he was only on his way for a brief conversation. It went like this, according to Kershaw:

"How are you doing?"

"I'm good."

The next thing Mattingly did was turn his back and retreat to the dugout and, five pitches later, Kershaw dispatched Marlon Byrd with his career-high 132nd pitch, his career-high 15th strikeout, and gave the Dodgers a 2-1 win that completed a three-game sweep and gave them their most comfortable division lead of the season, 6 1/2 games.

Mattingly, a former batting champion and MVP who got to compete in only one playoff series in his playing days, wouldn't have done this in May. He wouldn't have done this against the Colorado Rockies.

Like his best pitcher, he was a little bit fired up for this series judging by the way he managed Wednesday's game. He could hedge a little bit, because Kershaw likely will get an extra day of rest as the Dodgers insert Mike Bolsinger into the rotation for a turn, but this was really all about the moment. Closer Kenley Jansen was unavailable after pitching the previous two games, and nobody else at Mattingly's disposal was even in Kershaw's galaxy when it comes to ability level. After all, Zack Greinke had pitched the night before.

"Throughout the course of the year, you guys asked me why I took him out after games," Mattingly said to the media afterward. "Really, it's for games like this. You want to save your bullets for when you absolutely want to let him go."

It didn't hurt that Kershaw had breezed through most of his innings against a San Francisco Giants lineup that was never particularly fearsome and is now at two-thirds strength because of injuries.

But you can't chalk this one up to a bad lineup. The way Kershaw is pitching these days, he would fight tooth and nail against the 1927 New York Yankees' Murderers' Row. In fact, if Dr. Frankenstein could find a way to revive Babe Ruth and Co., Kershaw probably would agree to a game.

He became the first Dodgers pitcher in the modern era to strike out 14 or more batters in consecutive games. The 35 swings and misses he induced were the most ever recorded in a major league game, though people have only been tracking that for about 10 years.

Kershaw (12-6) might not have time to overtake Greinke for the National League Cy Young Award, but this charge he is on is ferocious. In Kershaw's last 12 starts, he is 7-1 with a 0.95 ERA, 120 strikeouts and eight walks. How did he feel about Wednesday's performance?

"I was a little bit frustrated with the curveball, but overall it was a good day," he said.

As usual, that faint praise left it for others to describe what the best pitcher in the game has been doing to lead his team back from the brink of underachievement. Some of it is about raw stuff and conditioning. He hit 95 mph with one pitch in the ninth inning. Aside from admitting he didn't feel like pitching immediately afterward, he predicted, "I'll be fine come my next time, for sure."

But it's at least 50 percent pure competitiveness. Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal is a relative newcomer to what Kershaw does. When he was playing for the San Diego Padres, a coach told him not to lead off first base by more than a step because Kershaw's pickoff move is so deadly. Two of the Giants' seven baserunners, including Posey, fell victim to that Wednesday.

But Grandal said he first learned of Kershaw's competitive streak during a 4-3 loss in Milwaukee earlier this season. After the Brewers scored a couple of runs off him, Kershaw started pumping fastball after fastball at them. Grandal said most pitchers retreat to off-speed stuff when they start getting hit.

"As soon as somebody scores, he's like, ‘All right, here we go. Try to score off of me again,' " Grandal said. "No matter how good you are, if you don't have that in you then I don't think you're going to go at guys the way he does."

The Dodgers were so pumped up with adrenaline after this week's sweep that Mattingly began to fret they would have a letdown in this weekend's series in San Diego.

Like-minded people think in like-minded ways.

"We're a good team. We're starting to play like that day in, day out, which is huge," Kershaw said. "We can't relax now. When you play a big series against the Giants like this, you might have a tendency to relax because San Diego is a little lower in the standings. You've got to keep your foot on the gas pedal."

Does he ever let up?