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For once, Clayton Kershaw doesn't have to do it all

6/27/2013

 

LOS ANGELES -- For a while, Clayton Kershaw didn't see Don Mattingly walking up behind him. Either he didn't see him or he was acting as if he didn't see him.

Then, when Mattingly forced himself into the little scrum that had formed around the pitcher's mound and made his intentions known, Kershaw handed him the ball without ever looking in his manager's direction. He stared into the left-field corner and walked briskly off the field.

Twenty minutes after Wednesday's 4-2 Los Angeles Dodgers win over the San Francisco Giants, which gave them their fifth straight win, Kershaw had a little time to reflect on that ninth-inning pitching change and decided, "Overall, it was probably the right decision."

Oh, but it had to burn at the time.

Earlier in the game, Buster Posey had pummeled a hanging slider over the left-field fence to give the Giants a lead and imperil Kershaw's first win in more than a month.

You have to know that Kershaw, who is as competitive as they get, wanted one more chance at Posey -- the best pitcher in the rivalry, if not the world, against the best hitter in the rivalry, if not the league. Posey was due up, representing the tying run with nobody out.

That's when Mattingly came out to hand the ball to closer Kenley Jansen, Kershaw's pitch count at a highly manageable 104.

"Do I think I could have gotten him out?" Kershaw said. "Sure, but you know, he'd already gotten me this game. He's obviously seeing me OK tonight. We've got a pretty good guy back there, too, to finish games."

This is true and it's also the only reason Mattingly ever would have considered pulling his best pitcher in that spot. The rest of the Dodgers' bullpen is a mess, but Jansen has been a squeamish at-bat for everybody he has faced for more than a month.

Since his last walk, back on May 19, Jansen has struck out 27 batters. He got Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval swinging on vicious, mid-90s cutters at neck level.

Many observers thought Jansen should have been the Dodgers' closer all along, but the team had given Brandon League a three-year, $22.5 million contract and gave him first crack at it. It looks as if Jansen plans on holding on to a job he lost last year only because of an irregular heartbeat that put him on the disabled list. Jansen had the condition surgically treated in the fall and has had no recurrences of atrial fibrillation since.

"I think in his mind, he felt like he's a closer," Mattingly said.

It must have been a nervous few minutes for Kershaw, who had seen so many of his decisions squandered by bad relief pitching or threatened by absurdly low run support. The last time he had gotten a win, he had to pitch nine innings of three-hit baseball to do it, the Dodgers squeaking by Milwaukee 3-1 on May 20.

You wouldn't expect a pitcher with a 6-5 record to start an All-Star Game. You would, however, expect a pitcher with a 2.08 ERA, 118 strikeouts and 33 walks to start one, so Kershaw is certainly in the running.

And so, perhaps, are the Dodgers, who are beginning to think of themselves as contenders again after the mess that lingered for most of three months around them.

Two weeks ago, Posey's two-run home run in the fourth inning would have been practically a knockout blow. Now, with better depth in their lineup, the Dodgers wiped it away fairly demonstratively with a three-run sixth.

The Dodgers are starting to get some serious mileage out of their two hottest hitters, Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez. Puig rebounded from a hitless Tuesday night to go 3-for-4 with a double. He had his usual adventures on the bases, getting thrown out without even sliding after trying to stretch a routine single into a double in the fifth inning.

Ramirez was 2-for-4 to stretch his hitting streak to nine games and drove in his 11th run since it began.

It's usually the case when Kershaw pitches, but the Dodgers look competitive again. It's a good sign for the Dodgers that Puig is no longer the only player anyone talks about.

It helps to have a handful of talented, healthy bodies on a given night. It also helps to have a dominant starting pitcher and a dominant closing pitcher.