- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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CINCINNATI -- Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre refuses to stick Clayton Kershaw with the ace label, saying it would be unfair to put such pressure on the precocious left-hander. But as Kershaw proved yet again on Wednesday night, when he pitched the Dodgers back into first place in the National League West, he can handle pretty much anything.
Kershaw certainly handled the Cincinnati Reds, whom the Dodgers vanquished again, 6-2 before 23,083. And he even handled Great American Ball Park, a place that tends to wreak havoc on left-handed pitchers with its ridiculously reachable leftfield wall.
But as usual, there was no havoc for Kershaw. He did give up a fifth-inning drive to Ramon Hernandez, a ball that hit about five feet below the top of the wall on the fly and caromed back to left fielder Manny Ramirez so hard that Hernandez couldn't make it past first base -- although the fact Hernandez appeared to admire his shot coming out of the batter's box also might have played a role in his failure to stretch the hit beyond a single.
Other than that, though, Kershaw never came close to giving up a home run in one of baseball's most homer-happy parks or to one of the league's most homer-happy team.
In 85 innings this season, Kershaw has given up four home runs -- including a grand total of one in the past six weeks.
"I think the only thing I can say to that is that I don't care what park I'm pitching in, I'm not going to change the way I pitch,'' Kershaw said. "I think the best way to avoid home runs is to stay ahead of the hitters. I don't worry about home runs. Solo home runs usually don't hurt you. It's when you walk guys, then give up a base hit and then a three-run bomb that you get into trouble.''
Kershaw still occasionally struggles with the base on balls. Although he has taken a gigantic step forward from last year, he presently has the same walks-per-nine-innings (4.8) that he had for all of last season. But in 7 1/3 innings against the Reds, he walked just one batter, his first start this season in which he hasn't walked at least two.
Fittingly, though, the only run he allowed came in the sixth inning, when, armed with a fresh, five-run lead after Andre Ethier hit a three-run homer in the top half of the frame, Kershaw walked the leadoff hitter, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. Phillips eventually scored on a sacrifice fly by Jonny Gomes.
Kershaw (7-3) scattered seven hits and struck out seven batters.
"Every time he goes out there, he is better,'' Torre said. "His stats may not be better, but I think whenever he goes out there, he is finding out something else about himself.''
But is Kershaw's rapid improvement ace-worthy?
"That stuff, I don't think is important,'' Torre said. "He certainly isn't afraid of that, but I am afraid of it more than he is because I don't think it's fair at this point to ask him to lead us because I think he still has a ways to go.''
Kershaw's performance gave him a 6-1 record and 1.82 ERA in his past eight starts. It also lifted the Dodgers (38-27) back into the divisional lead, a half-game ahead of the second-place San Diego Padres and a full game ahead of the third-place San Francisco Giants. And if the Dodgers can complete the three-game series sweep on Thursday -- something that would give them at least one three-game sweep of the Reds, either at home, away or both, in five consecutive seasons -- they will at least be able to take some momentum into this weekend's daunting interleague road series against the Boston Red Sox.
Kershaw won't pitch in that series, which will be played in another ballpark that historically chews up lefty hurlers and spits them out. But when he does return to the mound, presumably on Tuesday night in Anaheim against the Los Angeles Angels, he'll be ready, as Torre says, to find out a little more about himself.
"I'm just getting more comfortable,'' Kershaw said. "From the beginning of the season, those first eight or nine starts, I was having trouble settling in for the first inning, and that was creating problems by getting my pitch count up early and making it tough for me to make it through seven. But now, I think I'm channeling my energy a little bit better.''
Ethier finally hit his first home run since coming off the 15-day disabled list on May 31, snapping a string of 74 consecutive plate appearances since he hit his most recent one on May 12 at Arizona -- three days before he broke a tiny bone in the little finger of his right hand while taking batting practice in an indoor cage at San Diego's Petco Park.
Ethier's long-awaited, three-run blast off rookie Mike Leake in the sixth inning basically broke the backs of the Reds, turning a 2-0 lead into 5-0. It was part of a 2-for-5 night for the Dodgers right fielder.
There were two of them.
First, with the Dodgers leading 2-0 in the bottom of the fifth and Ramon Hernandez on second with one out, Orlando Cabrera drove a single to left field. As Reds third-base coach Mark Berry waved Hernandez around third, Ramirez, who has never been accused of having a rifle arm, charged the ball and fired a strike to catcher Russell Martin, who appeared to tag Hernandez on the back of the left shoulder just before Hernandez touched the plate with his left hand.
Plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt -- who an inning later would eject both Reds third baseman Scott Rolen and manager Dusty Baker for arguing after Rolen was called out on strikes -- immediately signaled that Hernandez was out. Although Hernandez argued briefly, televised replays seemed to indicate Wendelstedt had made the right call.
The other pivotal play came in the eighth. With the Dodgers leading 5-1, the Reds loaded the bases with one out against Hong-Chih Kuo. Drew Stubbs then hit a hard smash up the middle, but Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal reached up to stab it, then raced toward second in an attempt to double off Jonny Gomes. When it became apparent that Gomes would beat Furcal to the bag, Furcal ran directly at Gomes and tagged him on the helmet just before he could touch second, completing an inning-ending double play.
Manny Ramirez homered in the top of the ninth, his second in the past two games, to put the game out of reach. Kuo stayed in and finished the game, giving up a harmless solo homer to pinch hitter Chris Heisey in the bottom of the ninth, to record his second career save and first since Aug. 14, 2008.
Kuo had gone 18 1/3 consecutive innings without allowing a run until Heisey went deep.
1 -- loss for Leake after coming into this game 5-0 with a 2.68 ERA. The Dodgers are now the only team to have beaten Leake, arguably the leading candidate for the N.L. Rookie of the Year award, and the only team to have beaten Ubaldo Jimenez of the Colorado Rockies, the clear early favorite for the N.L. Cy Young Award.
Dodgers rookie right-hander John Ely (3-3, 3.38) will attempt to regain his previous form after two consecutive lackluster starts in which he allowed a total of eight runs on 15 hits over 10 innings. Veteran and former All-Star Bronson Arroyo (5-3, 4.80), who will start for the Reds, hasn't won since May 26. In three starts since then, he has allowed 14 earned runs on 22 hits over 19 1/3 innings.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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