Bill Plaschke: Kershaw makes a strong finish

Published: Friday, Jul. 11, 2014 - 1:00 am
Last Modified: Friday, Jul. 11, 2014 - 7:31 am

LOS ANGELES_The popular song wafted across Dodger Stadium and cut through the early-evening shadows, its words clearing the path for the bearded wonder on the pitching mound.

"Tonight - we are young - so let's set the world on fire - we can burn brighter - than the sun."

It was all about Clayton Kershaw. He was taking the field Thursday night with a 36-inning scoreless streak, the longest by a Dodgers pitcher in more than a quarter of a century. The stage was set against the outmanned San Diego Padres for the run to continue, for young Kershaw's world to burn even brighter.

And it did, with a 2-1 victory, his eighth in his last eight starts, a win that filled Chavez Ravine with the Kobe Bryant-style chants of "M-V-P ... M-V-P!"

The streak? Oh, that little thing? Kershaw's flirtation with history was history in the sixth inning. It ended when Chase Headley, who entered the game with a .208 average against Kershaw in 48 at-bats, drove a ball over the left-center-field fence for his first homer against him.

It was a sudden and startling loss of legacy. Yet it mattered for only a moment. During that moment, Kershaw stood off the mound staring at the left-field bleachers in disgust. Slowly, all around him, fans began standing and cheering in acknowledging a 41-inning streak that, while 18 innings short of Orel Hershiser's record, is still the fifth-longest in baseball's expansion era.

And just like that, the pity party was over. Kershaw took a deep breath and struck out Carlos Quentin swinging to end the inning to another standing ovation. Then he retired nine of the last 10 Padres hitters - including a take-that strikeout of Headley in the ninth inning - to end the game.

The scoreless streak was over, but the success streak remained intact, and nothing else mattered. Kershaw slapped his fist into his glove and hugged his teammates. The fans roared and began their chant. The Dodgers were in first place, Kershaw was still the best pitcher in baseball, and a message had been clearly sent.

A night that will be remembered for the end of one chase should be celebrated for the continuation of a more important one.

Kershaw is not about the records, he is about the winning. He is about shouldering the ache of a fan base that has gone 25 years without a championship. He is about redemption for seven runs he allowed on that chilly October night in St. Louis last season when his team was two wins from the World Series and Zack Greinke was waiting in the wings.

He has three earned-run average titles, two Cy Young awards, one no-hitter, but unlike Dodgers predecessors Sandy Koufax and Hershiser, he does not have a ring, and no scoreless inning streak is going to fix that. The only numbers he remembered late Thursday were his 11 wins in 13 decisions. Even at this still tender point in his career, the only letter he cares about is a W.

"It's good to get that win," Kershaw said afterward. "It's a close game ... it's a good win."

He was asked continuously about the homer and the end of the streak. He continuously repeated that it really didn't matter.

"I was disappointed I gave up the homer, I don't really care about an inning streak or whatever," Kershaw said. "Our job is not to give up runs. I don't really care about the streak."

He knows he doesn't need to be Bulldog. In some ways, there will never be another Bulldog. Did you know that Hershiser's scoreless streak in 1988 consisted of seven consecutive games during which he pitched at least nine innings in each game? That's right, he threw six complete games and then he lasted 10 innings in the record-breaking game that ended in the 16th inning.

As Thursday night once again showed, Hershiser's record is quietly one of the most awe-inspiring feats in baseball history and, seriously, if a powerful 26-year-old Kershaw can't even come closer than two games of equaling it during his best season, who ever will?

"I was truly sad to see that ball go over the fence, I was really hoping he would throw 140 consecutive scoreless," said Hershiser immediately after the game-tying homer, which he watched from the SportsNet LA studios. "He's an amazing pitcher, and I would have loved to see it happen for him."

Hershiser paused. "But now we have to win the game," he said.

That's how Kershaw thinks. That's how Kershaw plays. He know he doesn't need to be a Bulldog, he just needs to be Kersh, the big Texan with the strength to push this high-priced, pressure-filled team deep into October.

Push them past any lost streak. Push them past the memory of Chase Headley. Push them into some American League park just before Halloween and beyond. After next week's All-Star game, which Kershaw should start, 18 of the Dodgers' first 26 games will be on the road, all against teams with winning records. Kershaw's push starts here.

"He has a good feel that one game is not going to get us where we want to go," Manager Don Mattingly said before the game. "He has to be himself throughout the course of the season, to keep putting us in position to get where we want to go."

On Thursday night, a ball went deep and a scoreless streak disappeared, but Clayton Kershaw remained, doing precisely what he needs to do, taking the Dodgers exactly where they need to go.

Read more articles by BILL PLASCHKE



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