PHOENIX -- As the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks play a three-game series this weekend for no other reason than that the schedule says they have to, it suddenly seems like eons ago that these two teams were fighting tooth and nail for the championship of the National League West, the race going down to the last four days of the season before the Dodgers finally clinched the division title.
Alas, it wasn't eons ago. It was two years ago.
As Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw was turning in another dominating performance, his six outstanding innings carrying the Dodgers to a 3-1 victory over the Diamondbacks before 38,516 on Friday night at Chase Field, it also seemed like eons ago that the Dodgers front office and coaching staff were strictly limiting Kershaw's innings in an attempt to protect his then-20-year-old left arm and the $2.3 million signing bonus they had invested in it.
That actually wasn't eons ago either. That was just last year, and the year before.
When Kershaw got former Dodgers infielder Tony Abreu to take a called third strike for the second out in the fourth inning, catcher A.J. Ellis rolled the ball into the Dodgers dugout, where someone presumably took it and placed it in Kershaw's locker. In a season when the reins finally were taken off, that out officially gave Kershaw 200 innings for the season, a standard even most veteran starting pitchers struggle to achieve.
"Two hundred innings is nice, I guess, but I'm not really goal-oriented as long as we win," said Kershaw, who then let his guard down a little. "But the 200-inning thing is cool. It's definitely something that is a benchmark, and hopefully, I can do it every year."
Kershaw wound up at 204 1/3 for the season, with two starts still to come. He came tantalizingly close to what would have been his second complete-game shutout in his past three starts before the Diamondbacks began the ninth with consecutive hits to spoil the shutout and manager Joe Torre came out of the dugout to spoil the complete game.
Kenley Jansen then continued his rookie-season feel-good story by getting the final three outs, recording his second save.
Just like in his four-hit shutout of the San Francisco Giants on Sept. 14, Kershaw (13-10) didn't walk a batter. He held the Diamondbacks to two hits through the first eight innings and four hits overall, and he struck out nine.
And along the way, he continued to prove that at the ripe age of 22, he deserves to be treated, and handled, like a proven major league veteran.
"This spring, we got the good news that there was no governor," Torre said. "He has been champing at the bit for us to let him go longer. When I went out there to get him, he asked me if there was any way he could talk me into letting him face one more left-hander."
Torre said no, of course, but Kershaw already had gone far longer than Torre had planned for him to. Kershaw originally was slated to pitch Saturday, on an extra day of rest, but Torre moved him up to ensure that he would pitch in an upcoming game at Colorado because it was thought at the time that the Rockies would still be in contention -- something that appears less likely now that they have lost five in a row and fallen 4 1/2 games out of first place in the National League West.
"I certainly didn't plan on him pitching until the ninth inning, but he made it impossible for me to do anything other than that," Torre said. "He really didn't struggle at all. He threw a lot of strikes early. We told him it was going to be a short outing, but he threw so many strikes that he made it tough to do that."
The fourth-place and mathematically eliminated Dodgers (75-79), by the way, remained 12 games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants. But from here on out, especially as they are playing six of their final nine against the woeful Diamondbacks, the Dodgers' season is more about individual achievements, and this was a big one for Kershaw.
It is no secret that Kershaw occasionally bristled at the restrictions that were placed on him in his first two big league seasons, as he pitched 107 2/3 innings as a rookie (along with 61 1/3 minor league innings) and 171 last year.
"(But) I always had it in the back of my mind that they were doing it for my own good," Kershaw said. "Obviously, they wanted what was best for me. You always want to stay out there, and that got tough at times. But I always knew they were doing it for my own good and trying to protect me, and I really can't fault them for that."
Especially now, when that conservative approach is bearing fruit like never before.
By the Numbers
196--consecutive games played for Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp, the longest current streak in the majors. Although Kemp wasn't in the starting lineup, Torre checked with him before the game to gauge how important it was to Kemp to play in all 162 this season, and when Kemp told him it was, in fact, important, Torre said he made the decision to make sure Kemp gets into every game the rest of the way. Kemp pinch hit in the eighth inning and played the rest of the game in center.
Scene and Heard
In an only-the-Diamondbacks sort of moment, Kershaw unleashed a 1-2 slider to Andy LaRoche in the seventh inning that didn't quite get there, bouncing in the dirt about five feet in front of the plate. But inexplicably, LaRoche swung at it, one of four strikeouts in four plate appearances on the evening for the veteran first baseman.
It was one of nine strikeouts for Kershaw and one of 11 for the Diamondbacks overall. The Diamondbacks are the runaway major league strikeout leaders with 1,437, surpassing any other team by more than 200. On a more encouraging note, although third baseman Mark Reynolds is once again the runaway major league leader in strikeouts with 206, the fact he didn't strike out in any of his three plate appearances on Friday night slowed his pace to the point that it now will be virtually impossible for him to break the all-time, single-season record for the third consecutive season, a record that presently stands at 223.
The Diamondbacks are averaging 9.3 strikeouts per game this season. That projects to a little more than three innings worth of outs by strikeout in each game.
Jay Gibbons, the veteran first baseman-outfielder who was promoted to the majors for the first time in three years on Aug. 8, has one hit in 14 at-bats over his past four games, a slump that has dropped his average below .300 for the first time since he was called up. Gibbons did drive in a run for the first time in a week, though, following Andre Ethier's leadoff triple in the fourth with a sacrifice fly to deep center field. Gibbons' average was at .400 as recently as Aug. 22 and .360 as recently as Aug. 31.
Quote of the Day
"I wasn't here very long. It was sort of like one week, but I had a great first week. There were still a lot of people out there welcoming me back. It felt good to be back." -- Dodgers outfielder Trent Oeltjen, whose only previous major league experience before the Dodgers purchased his contract from Triple-A Albuquerque on Sept. 7 consisted of a 24-game stint with the Diamondbacks last season, the first five of which saw him go 12 for 24 with two doubles, a triple and three home runs.
This endlessly compelling series continues in the Saturday twilight with a matchup of rookies, right-hander John Ely (4-8, 5.00) taking the mound for the Dodgers and right-hander Daniel Hudson (7-2, 2.49) for the Diamondbacks. Ely hasn't won a game at the major league level since June 29 and has allowed 25 hits over 15 1/3 innings while posting an 11.74 in four starts since then. Hudson, who came to the Diamondbacks from the Chicago White Sox in a trading-deadline deal for Edwin Jackson, will be facing the Dodgers for the first time.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.