LOS ANGELES -- We have grown accustomed to seeing Clayton Kershaw dominate. On Tuesday night, we saw him impersonate.
On the occasion of Fernando Valenzuela Bobblehead Night at Dodger Stadium, Kershaw pitched the Los Angeles Dodgers to a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Rockies by reprising one of Valenzuela's signature performances.
Remember Game 3 of the 1981 World Series? The game the Dodgers absolutely, positively couldn't afford to lose? The game Valenzuela refused to lose, even though he came so close to losing it so many times? The game when he had little in the way of stuff and nothing in the way of margin for error, when he seemed to flirt with disaster every inning before he ultimately gutted out a complete-game, one-run victory that turned the series around?
It was kind of like that for Kershaw against the Rockies.
He didn't make it all the way through to the end, but he did make it through a career-high 125 pitches, and he needed every one of them to last 6 2/3 innings. The Rockies had at least one baserunner in every one of the seven innings Kershaw started and at least one runner in scoring position in five of them. And Kershaw clearly wasn't sharp in the way he so often is, relying more on guile than gas.
"It was a battle from the start, really," Kershaw said. "I was falling behind in counts and really just struggling all the way around. I was fortunate to get through that many [innings]. I wasn't getting ahead of hitters, and when I did get ahead, I really couldn't put them away. I really didn't have my best stuff."
But as he almost always is, he was good enough. Good enough to preserve the three-run lead he was given in the fourth inning that had shrunk to one by the time he left. Good enough to make the big pitch to get the big out whenever he needed it.
"I would like to think a start like this one is where he tells us who he is," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said.
The Rockies, who are almost as bad as the Dodgers when it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position, went a putrid 1-for-12 in those situations in the Kershaw innings, including a weak tapper by Troy Tulowitzki against Matt Guerrier to strand the tying run -- which was Kershaw's responsibility -- at third in the seventh.
With that, 50,664 Valenzuela bobbleheads nodded in approval.
The fourth-place Dodgers (47-56) moved to within 12 games of the division-leading San Francisco Giants in the National League West, but more important -- well, maybe not more important, but more immediate, at least -- they gave themselves a chance to leapfrog the Rockies into third if they can complete a three-game sweep Wednesday night, when Hiroki Kuroda takes the mound against a struggling Aaron Cook.
But in a season that figures to be mostly about individual performances from here out, the Dodgers got a defining one from Kershaw (12-4, 2.72 ERA). It was nothing like his previous outing, when he shut out the world champion Giants on three hits over eight innings, struck out a season-high 12 batters and beat Tim Lincecum for the second time this year. In fact, Kershaw actually hadn't given up an earned run in his last three starts, a span of 23 innings, although he was tagged with four unearned runs July 15 because of a Juan Uribe error, after which Kershaw couldn't stop the bleeding.
The same thing almost happened in the first inning of this one, first baseman Juan Rivera simply muffing a throw from shortstop Rafael Furcal, and Kershaw followed that with a walk and a wild pitch, setting up the Rockies with a second-and-third, one-out situation. That basically would set the tone for the game, but so would what happened next, Kershaw getting the dangerous Tulowitzki to pop up and striking out Ty Wigginton.
And on and on it went, until Kershaw had somehow made it deep into the seventh inning and outdueled de facto Rockies ace Jhoulys Chacin (8-8), and even then, he didn't really want to come out, as evidenced by his reaction when Mattingly came to get him.
"He asked if I had already made the double switch," said Mattingly, who already had. "To me, nothing really stops him from just making pitches. It gets down to the simplicity of knowing where he wants to throw the ball and how he wants to attack the hitter, and he just kept doing that until I took him out of the game."
The Dodgers' suddenly dominating bullpen took care of the rest, Guerrier getting it through the eighth and Kenley Jansen recording his second save with a perfect ninth on an evening when regular closer Javy Guerra was shut down because he had pitched on three consecutive days. Jansen extended his scoreless-innings streak to 16.
And when it was over and the old yard was reverberating with that ancient recording of Randy Newman, we had all learned something else about the indomitable Kershaw. We have seen him when he is very good, and we have seen him when he is something less than that. Either way, you have to like the Dodgers' chances whenever he takes the ball.
They used to say the same thing about Valenzuela, didn't they?
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.