LOS ANGELES -- In the last few innings Wednesday night, the tension was building, even though what ultimately happened has always felt inevitable. Clayton Kershaw would retreat from the mound to the Los Angeles Dodgers' dugout. He'd sit smack-dab in the middle of the bench. About 15 feet to his right sat pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, looking in every direction other than Kershaw's. Up front, lining the railing, were the 24 other players on the team, the trainers, the coaches, security and manager Don Mattingly, nobody so much as glancing in Kershaw's direction.
It wasn't until Kershaw had done it, pitched his first no-hitter in an 8-0 win over the Rockies, that he smiled as he chucked his glove and thrust his hands in the sky. That seemed to be the cue, the tension-cutter, inviting his teammates to come and swarm him in hugs near the mound. There has always been that code with Kershaw. Everyone who works with him has learned to deal with it every fifth day. It has become part of the job working around this team. And if you watched that almost-effortless dominance Wednesday night, you know it's probably not his last no-hitter.
Just don't approach the man when he's pitching. Any other time, you can make him the butt of your jokes, prank him, argue with him, ignore him, ask him to play cards or, if you're brave, challenge him in table tennis -- any of the things you would do with any of your other teammates. Just don't approach the man when he's pitching.
So, if it looked as if the Dodgers were ignoring Kershaw because they didn't want to jinx his perfect game, which through no fault of his own settled into a no-hitter, it looked wrong. That could have been an 8-0 game in Milwaukee in which Kershaw had given up six hits and nobody would have been offering much idle chitchat.
He's the opposite of Zack Greinke, who is virtually silent on days he doesn't pitch, and a chatterbox in the dugout on days he starts.
"Everyone kind of has different personalities on days they pitch," Kershaw said. "Josh [Beckett] is really animated, loves talking. Greinke and [Dan] Haren are kind of the same way. For me, it's not that I don't talk. It's just that, I don't know, I'm not that approachable, I guess."
Kershaw's no-hitter came less than a month after Beckett's in Philadelphia. Beckett had cracked to Kershaw, "Someday, I'll teach you how to do that."
Right now, Kershaw doesn't need to learn anything from anybody. He's the best pitcher in baseball, end of discussion, and when things are working the way they were Wednesday, why even step in the box? While Beckett got through his no-hitter largely on wiles -- he walked three batters and struck out only six, relying on his fielders throughout -- Kershaw was pulling strings Wednesday. It really was a perfect game, even if the record book won't admit it to that section. His curveball and slider were so good, the only worry was that someone would hit the ball so poorly -- as Corey Dickerson did in the seventh inning -- it would go as an infield hit. Fortunately, Dickerson's didn't. Hanley Ramirez's throw to first was wild and it was correctly ruled an error. Ramirez called it an error, but Kershaw, the diligent teammate, said it could have gone either way.
Kershaw struck out 15 batters, a career high, and this was by no means a no-hit lineup that he faced. The Rockies score most of their runs at home (no surprise there), but before coming here, they had gone to San Francisco and scored 20 runs in three games. They have perhaps the best right-handed hitter in the league, Troy Tulowitzki, and some dangerous guys behind him.
When Kershaw has everything working, it doesn't matter if he's facing Paul Bunyan. Wednesday, his curveball dived, his slider darted away like a skittish bird, his fastball went wherever it wanted to go and, well, he did throw one lousy changeup. He's human, it turns out.
Here's how one hitter, Dodgers outfielder Scott Van Slyke, described Kershaw's repertoire:
"He's a little bit funky, he's over the top. He's got good downward angle. His fastball's 94 to 95. It's got a little late life, cuts in. He's not afraid to pitch in. He's got a really good slider that disappears and, just when you think you've got him timed up, he'll flip a 75 mph curveball. Other than that stuff, he's pretty terrible."
Frankly, if you're Mike Matheny, wouldn't you give Kershaw some consideration to start the All-Star Game next month if he keeps going like this? Sure, he missed five weeks because of a back injury, but he's making up for lost time with a vengeance. He's 7-2 with a 2.52 ERA. Those numbers can stack up with just about anybody. Let's see where they stand in a couple of weeks.
And he's not bad to have around, either. It's rare that a starting pitcher becomes labeled as a team leader, because they only participate in 20 percent of a team's games, but you hear that dropped on Kershaw fairly routinely these days. He's not loud. In fact, if you can hear anything in the Dodgers clubhouse aside from Yasiel Puig's voice, it's rarely Kershaw's.
He doesn't correct players' mistakes. What he does is set an example of such relentless drive that other players feel ashamed to lounge on the couch with their iPads as he finishes some ridiculous workout the morning after he pitches.
Mattingly started to choke up the minute he sat down in the interview room. He has always gotten like that when he talks about Kershaw in big moments, because he has known him since he was a teenager. Mattingly's son, Preston, and Kershaw were minor league roommates. Preston Mattingly and Kershaw still run together.
Mattingly would love nothing more than to have 25 players who care as much as Kershaw does. If he did, the Dodgers wouldn't still be four games behind the Giants, that's for sure. Then again, if he had 25 players as talented as Kershaw, there'd be no league in which they could play.
"All those guys sit out there and watch him," Mattingly said. "When you talk to our guys, nobody deserves it more than him."
If you were to sum up the Dodgers' feelings about Kershaw, it might go something like this: He's not cuddly, but he's lovable.