Commentary

Clayton Kershaw enters new territory

He loses to Padres, but he's approaching career highs for innings and getting stronger

Updated: September 8, 2010, 2:59 AM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

SAN DIEGO -- As the Los Angeles Dodgers' season heads into what appears to be a dreary home stretch, their prized young left-hander, Clayton Kershaw, is heading into uncharted territory. Although they are probably crossing their fingers and holding their breath, club officials apparently don't plan to stop him.

After Tuesday night's game, a 2-1 defeat to the San Diego Padres before 20,071 at Petco Park in which Kershaw took the loss for the sixth time this season in a game in which the Dodgers scored two or fewer runs, Kershaw had pitched 183⅓ innings for the year. That is exactly one inning short of his total for all of last season, playoffs included, when he set his previous career high of 171 innings and then tacked another 13⅓ onto that in his three postseason appearances.

This is the same Kershaw who was handled so delicately in his first two major league seasons in an effort to protect his treasured left arm and the $2.3 million investment the Dodgers made when they signed him after making him the first pick in the 2006 amateur draft. But now, in his third big league season, Kershaw seems to be free of constraints.

Clayton Kershaw
AP Photo/Denis PoroyClayton Kershaw's strikeouts per nine innings has increased in the second half of the season.

"I think so," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said before the game. "We took the reins off him going into this season. He had an extra day before this start with the off-day [on Thursday], and we'll look for that again when we can. He is fine, and all his numbers show that he is fine. He hasn't shown any sort of dip or fatigue or anything, even though we have asked him to do a lot, no question about it."

If anything, Kershaw appears to have become stronger as the season has moved into its final weeks. His second-half ERA is an outstanding 3.04, and while that is up slightly from his first-half mark of 2.96, his strikeouts per nine innings have actually jumped to 10.08 beginning Aug. 1, compared to 9.50 through July. He has struck out 11 batters -- one short of his season high -- twice in his past four starts.

"I feel great," Kershaw said. "Physically, I feel like I did in April. I'm excited to get to however many starts I have left and finish the season on a positive note."

Unless Torre changes his mind -- something that conceivably could happen if the Dodgers (69-70) fall much further out of contention -- Kershaw will get four more starts, two of them on his regular four days of rest and two with a fifth day in between because of off-days in the Dodgers' schedule.

The fact he already has shattered his previous career high for innings in the regular season is a sign that Kershaw, who used to struggle with high pitch counts often resulting in early exits, has overcome that problem and is now routinely pitching deep into games. If he continues to do that, and if he makes all four of those remaining starts, he will easily blow past the 200-innings plateau with at least one start to spare.

"I think that is any starting pitcher's goal," Kershaw said. "You see certain guys like [Philadelphia's Roy] Halladay who get there by August. I think 200 innings would be a cool milestone, for sure."

What would be even cooler for Kershaw (11-10), of course, would be to actually have a few more wins to show for what he has delivered on the mound this season. But given the Dodgers' pop-gun offense, which was once again stymied by San Diego ace Mat Latos and the Padres' vaunted bullpen, Kershaw is hardly alone in his hard-luck status, which is why he wasn't much in the mood to directly address it after the game.

"Any time you lose a game, it's frustrating," he said. "But tip your hat to Latos. That guy is awesome. He had great stuff. Any time you pitch against a guy that good ... it was just one of those nights, that's all I can say about it."

Of course, if the Dodgers hadn't been held under three runs for the third game in a row in their fourth consecutive loss, the Padres might have been saying those same things about Kershaw, who gave up two runs and five hits over seven mostly dazzling innings. He retired the final six batters he faced and 13 of the final 14, the only interruption to that streak being a leadoff walk to Ryan Ludwick in the sixth that Kershaw was easily able to pitch around.

For all that, Kershaw was left holding the bag on an evening when the Dodgers fell below .500 for the first time since they were 16-17 after a win at Arizona on May 13. As if it matters anymore, the fourth-place Dodgers are now 10 games behind the division-leading Padres in the National League West, a fairly strong indication that their playoff hopes are dead in every way except mathematically.

"I don't know, I really don't," Kershaw said when asked if the Dodgers still have a chance. "At this point, I think we have to focus on winning a game first. I haven't looked at the standings, and I don't know where we are right now, but I think it starts with tomorrow. That is really the only positive right now, that we play every day and you can wash away the bad days fairly quickly."

Trends

Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier has now struck out seven times in his past 12 at-bats after doing so three times Tuesday night. In the Dodgers' past nine games, Ethier has had two games in which he struck out three times and one game in which he struck out four times. Torre said after the game he was leaning toward resting Ethier in Wednesday night's series finale against the Padres.

Key moment

With Jamey Carroll on second, nobody out and the Dodgers trailing by a run in the top of the eighth inning, Jay Gibbons stepped in to pinch hit for Kershaw and drove what looked like an extra-base hit up the alley in left-center against Padres reliever Mike Adams. But Padres center fielder Chris Denorfia came racing into the gap and made a headlong, diving catch to rob Gibbons of at least a double and prevent Carroll, who had to hold at second, from scoring the tying run. Carroll wound up stranded there when Scott Podsednik and James Loney struck out against Heath Bell.

By the numbers

14.4 -- strikeouts per nine innings this season for Dodgers rookie reliever Kenley Jansen, who struck out two more batters in a perfect eighth inning to run his season total to 27 strikeouts in 16⅔ innings. Jansen, who didn't agree to convert from catching to pitching until about a year ago, has given up two earned runs (1.08 ERA) in his 16 appearances since he was recalled from Double-A Chattanooga on July 23.

Quote of the day

"Yeah, that probably would be accurate. We certainly aren't a .500 team, but we haven't played well enough to deserve a better record or to have a better record." -- Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake, when asked if the fact the Dodgers are now below .500 for the season is an accurate indicator of the way their season has gone.

Looking ahead

Dodgers right-hander Chad Billingsley (11-8, 3.54) hasn't given up a run in 13⅓ innings this season at Petco, where he has won both of his starts. He has a 1.79 ERA in his past nine starts overall and gave up only two unearned runs and two hits over eight innings in his most recent start Friday night against the San Francisco Giants. Padres left-hander Cory Luebke (0-1, 7.20) will be making his second major league start after giving up four runs and five hits over five innings in his debut Friday night against the Colorado Rockies.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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