- Mark Saxon, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- The day before Clayton Kershaw took the mound Sunday night, he sat down for a conversation with ESPN's Orel Hershiser.
The two iconic Dodgers pitchers discussed the mechanics and mentality of pitching, but Hershiser shifted gears and asked Kershaw about the Dodgers' dramatic midseason turnaround. Kershaw discussed a few factors, then got around to Zack Greinke.
"He's pitching, basically, spring training games during the season, and he's competing, getting guys out," Kershaw said, "and now he's got his stuff to where he wants it, and he's dominant."
That makes two of them.
In the list of far-from-ideal circumstances major league teams can get themselves into, the Tampa Bay Rays -- as solid a team as there is -- stumbled into a good one this weekend. They blew a six-run, seventh-inning lead Friday, then had to face Greinke and Kershaw, two of the past eight Cy Young winners on earth, in back-to-back games.
There's fighting your way uphill and then there's getting to base camp on K-2. This was some high-altitude degree of difficulty. As the Dodgers get closer to making the question how far they can go in the playoffs, not whether they can get there, it is their greatest asset, the scariest weapon.
The night after Greinke pitched into the seventh inning without giving up a run, Kershaw pitched around four Dodgers errors -- three by shortstop Dee Gordon -- in an 8-2 win over the Rays on Sunday. He pitched eight innings, giving up three hits and striking out eight, though he almost surely could have finished it if manager Don Mattingly hadn't been concerned about keeping his pitch count in the 100 range -- likely mindful of a postseason run.
Kershaw is big on saying nothing affects him -- not the attention, not the paltry run support and not the defense behind him -- but he's not immune to all of it, according to those who know him.
"I just have a good feeling whenever he's on the mound, and then put him on a national stage [on ESPN] and let him pitch in front of all his peers. That matters to him," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "He had an edge about him today that was fun to be a part of."
Two days ago, the Dodgers quietly slipped into one of the more meaningful statistical leads in baseball. Their starting rotation has the best ERA in the majors. Dodgers starting pitchers have given up more than three runs only three times in the past 16 games. Their ERA is 2.70 over the past 60 games.
It has become a nightly tabulation, a simple one: Just add one to the win column. The Dodgers have gone 37-8 since June 22. They're 20-3 since the All-Star break.
"You rattle off a streak like we have right now and it's probably a little more than luck," Kershaw said. "We're a pretty good team right now."
They're 7½ games ahead of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who just lost their hottest hitter, Cody Ross, to a season-ending hip injury. The rest of their division looks to be drifting at sea. It's really not all that premature to wonder whether the Dodgers will soon start to think about gaining home-field advantage for the playoffs.
Then again, do they want it? They've won 17 of their past 18 games on the road.
The scary thing is, the Dodgers just went 6-1 while trudging through the thick grass, playing two of the better teams in baseball. Their next 10 games come against teams collectively 48 games under .500, starting Monday with the New York Mets, who are the best of the bunch. Of their next 22 games, 19 come against sub-.500 teams.
Mattingly spoke in fairly emotional terms before the game about the Dodgers' inability to score runs for Kershaw. He has led the major leagues in ERA most of the season, yet the Dodgers had a 13-11 record in his starts coming into Sunday.
It reminded Mattingly of his former teammate, Ron Guidry, who once had a 2.76 ERA and won only 11 games.
"We need to change it. That's for sure," Mattingly said.
Nowadays, the Dodgers solve problems on the fly. For just the third time this season, they gave Kershaw a comfortable cushion. Usually, he doesn't need that. He can make do with a hard wooden bench, or even a craggy rock.
Kershaw didn't give up a hit until Yunel Escobar led off the fifth inning with a single to left. He didn't give up a run until pinch hitter Sam Fuld hit a sinking liner near the right-field line, for which Yasiel Puig dove and came up short to allow Escobar to score on the triple.
Kershaw got things going with his two-out RBI single in the second inning. Among his goals, he's intent on catching up to Greinke, who is batting .389 in 39 at-bats. Mattingly has considered using him as a pinch hitter.
"Greinke's wearing me out," Kershaw said.
Imagine the wear and tear from two of them, back-to-back.