Kershaw maintains uncanny stability
The Dodgers' young pitcher continues to improve at an unusually steady pace
LOS ANGELES -- There was another masterpiece by Clayton Kershaw on Thursday night, this one carrying the Los Angeles Dodgers to a dramatic, 3-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs before 43,640 at Dodger Stadium. But mostly, there was another example of the young left-hander's maturation process, one that seems to be continual rather than the series of fits and starts that most young pitchers go through.
"He is always learning something," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "That is the best compliment I can pay to this kid."
Kershaw took the mound five days after a start against the Arizona Diamondbacks that was long on result but short on process. On his way to getting a lopsided win last Saturday night at Chase Field, Kershaw threw 5 2/3 shutout innings but needed 105 pitches to get that far, largely because he repeatedly failed to put hitters away in two-strike counts.
Against the Cubs, Kershaw needed eight fewer pitches to get through eight innings, this despite the fact he struck out a season-high 12 batters, a figure that normally would tend to inflate a starter's pitch count. But Kershaw offset that by not walking a batter for the second time in his past three starts.
"The important thing he brings to the table is that he is able to throw more than one pitch for strikes," Torre said. "A couple of years ago, if he would get behind in the count, you knew it was going to be a fastball and you hoped it worked. Now, he can throw the changeup or the slider. He has a lot of weapons out there, and if you're a hitter, it's not easy to sit on [a certain pitch]."
Well, that's sort of true. Kershaw deflected Torre's praise of his changeup, saying it was still a work in progress, that he threw only one in the entire game against the Cubs and that it missed for a ball. But the slider, well, that's a different story.
"Two years ago, I didn't even have a slider," Kershaw said. "Last year, toward the middle of the season, I started throwing it. It's a lot easier pitch to learn for me as opposed to the changeup. I'm working every day on the changeup, and that is something I have to get better at, obviously. But the slider isn't as much of a feel pitch, so you can just kind of grip it and rip it, so it's a little bit easier."
Kershaw said he threw only one pitch he wished he hadn't, and it wasn't the monstrous home run he gave up to Alfonso Soriano in the second inning, a shot that landed deep in the Dodgers' bullpen in left field and erased a 1-0 Dodgers lead. Instead, it was a slider he left up to Geovany Soto in the fourth, one Soto lined up the middle for a base hit that scored Aramis Ramirez from second and gave the Cubs a 2-1 lead that would last until Rafael Furcal's game-winning, two-run homer with two outs in the bottom of the seventh.
Beyond that, Kershaw (9-4) was happy with every other pitch he threw. And 96 out of 97 isn't too bad.
"I just had better command," he said. "Against Arizona, I was getting ahead of hitters and then trying to throw it through a wall, as hard as I could, instead of trying to spot up with two strikes. [The Cubs] still got seven hits, which is OK because they're an aggressive team. But at the same time, I didn't walk anybody, which I take as a positive."
The biggest positive for the Dodgers (47-38) was that they held onto their share of second-place in the National League West, in which they are still tied with Colorado, still three games behind division-leading San Diego and still one game ahead of fourth-place San Francisco.
Kershaw's eight innings tied his career high, and he admitted having campaigned for a shot at his first career complete game. But Torre said he never entertained the thought.
"There was no entertainment, and we never even warmed the band up," Torre said.
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With a one-run lead, a fresh Jonathan Broxton and the heart of a lineup Cubs manager Lou Piniella had stacked with all right-handers against Kershaw due up in the ninth, Torre went with his closer, who pitched around a two-out single by Ramirez for his 19th save.
Furcal hasn't come close to cooling off since being named the NL Player of the Week on Tuesday. He had already been on base in all three plate appearances -- doubling and scoring a run in the first, beating out an infield single in the third and getting hit by a pitch in the fifth -- when he stepped to the plate with two outs in the seventh, just after Kershaw had laid down a perfect bunt to advance Russell Martin to second.
Batting left-handed against the Cubs' Randy Wells (4-7), Furcal yanked the first pitch on a looping line up the right-field line. It landed three rows deep and about three feet to the left of the foul pole, putting the Dodgers ahead to stay.
Furcal is now batting .500 (25-for-50) over his past 12 games, with 17 runs scored, four home runs and 15 RBIs.
"In that situation, I'm not trying to do too much," Furcal said. "We had a runner on second base, so I was just trying to make contact and get a base hit. I wasn't trying to hit a home run. I wanted to make contact on a pitch over the middle, and that happened."
The Dodgers improved to 16-11 in one-run games.
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The Dodgers' Brad Ausmus caught three innings, his first appearance behind the plate in the second game of his minor league rehabilitation assignment with high Single-A Inland Empire on Thursday night at Lake Elsinore. Ausmus went 1-for-2 at the plate, striking out in the first inning and lining a single to right field in the third, both against San Diego Padres pitching prospect Anthony Bass. Ausmus, who is 41 and in his 18th major league season, underwent surgery in April to repair a herniated disc in his back. He is expected back sometime around the start of August.
Right-hander Chad Billingsley (6-4, 4.06) will take the mound for the Dodgers looking for his first win since May 26. He is 0-2 with a 4.83 ERA in five subsequent starts, although the Dodgers have won three of those games. Lefty Ted Lilly (3-7, 3.76), a former Dodgers farmhand, has gotten just 2.4 runs of support from the Cubs in his 14 starts this season and had a 3.12 ERA before getting blown up for nine runs over 6 2/3 innings in his most recent start on Sunday against Cincinnati.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.