Whatever concerns might have been created by Clayton Kershaw’s clunker on Opening Day, they disappeared into thin air.
Back at sea level in Oakland, Kershaw allowed a first-inning run on back-to-back doubles then retired 20 of the next 22 batters he faced as the Dodgers beat the Oakland A’s, 5-1, Tuesday night.
“Oof. Clayton Kershaw was Clayton Kershaw tonight,” said Edwin Rios who got the start at third base. “He was unbelievable. It was just nice to be out there and not get a ball hit to me.”
Kershaw wasn’t quite himself on Opening Day. After giving up six runs on 10 hits in that loss, he allowed just four hits in seven innings Tuesday to record his first victory over the A’s and first at RingCentral (or any of its previous naming rights incarnations) Coliseum – making them the 24th team Kershaw has beaten in his career and the 26th ballpark where he has notched a win.
“Just better overall,” Kershaw said, expanding his two-word self-assessment after his first start – “Wasn’t great” – by one word.
“I just was a little bit sharper than last time.”
In the five-game winning streak that has followed the Opening Day loss at Coors Field, Dodgers starting pitchers have been razor-sharp – a 2.23 ERA and 0.65 WHIP while holding opposing batters to a .139 average.
But back-to-back doubles by Jed Lowrie and Ramon Laureano with one out in the first inning gave winless Oakland its first lead of the 2021 season. At the same time, it furrowed brows and raised pulse rates, coming as it did on the heels of Kershaw’s 10.22 spring ERA and rough opener at Coors Field.
“Good results are always good,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “But I don’t think that we put too much credence on spring. After Denver, I thought there were some good throws in there.”
The throws got even better after the back-to-back doubles. Kershaw struck out Matt Chapman and Sean Murphy to end the inning already with more strikeouts (three) and more swings and misses (seven) than he had while pitching into the sixth inning in Colorado.
With his slider having regained its bite, Kershaw struck out eight, getting 21 swings and misses in his 91 pitches – 16 on his slider. The 21 swings and misses is his highest single-game total since July 2017.
“It was better, for sure. Yeah, getting there,” Kershaw said when asked if working on his slider was a focus between starts.
“It’s always an emphasis, regardless. It’s important for me. … Definitely, when you don’t pitch well you work on everything and try to get better.”
The mile-high atmosphere at Coors Field is notoriously unkind to breaking pitches. But Roberts wasn’t willing to chalk Kershaw’s improvement up to the simple physics of altitude.
“I don’t know if it’s as simple as that. You’ve still got to go out there and execute pitches,” Roberts said. “After that (back-to-back doubles), I think he just really settled in and he just really had a feel for the slider. So, I don’t know if that’s sea level or he just felt good with it. But I do know that typically at altitude it’s a little bit tougher to spin the baseball.”
A potential bump in the road was smoothed over by replay review in the fourth inning.
Stephen Piscotty launched a high fly ball down the left field line that was initially called a home run then overturned to a foul ball. A replay review confirmed the second call and Piscotty trudged back to the batter’s box and bounced out to shortstop to end the inning.
That continued a streak of batters retired by Kershaw that would reach 12 before the A’s got their fourth hit of the night – a two-out double by Piscotty in the seventh inning.
By then, the Dodgers were nursing a 4-1 lead.
They matched Oakland’s early run with an RBI double by Austin Barnes in the second inning then took the lead with three runs in the third.
After a single by Justin Turner to start the inning, Max Muncy continued to torment his former employers, sending a two-run home run over the right field wall. Two batters later, Rios launched a 409-foot drive into the seats.
Mookie Betts made it a three-homer night for the Dodgers with a solo shot in the ninth. The Dodgers managed just one over-the-fence home run (that counted) in four games at hitter-friendly Coors Field but have hit five in their first two games at the cavernous Coliseum.
Six games into the season, the Dodgers are hitting an MLB-best .327 with a .420 on-base percentage that also leads the majors.
“Our team is unbelievable. I mean, just one through 26 our team is just so good,” said Kershaw, more effusive about his teammates than insightful about his own performance. “I’m glad I don’t have to face them. I really do. I mean Mookie, Seager, J.T., Muncy, Bellinger – you can’t stop. It’s just like, if one guy’s not having a great game, the other six are. It’s just fun to watch. It really is.”