LOS ANGELES – There was one path to beating Clayton Kershaw on Wednesday, and for a good portion of the night, the Giants walked it.
Buster Posey hit a two-run home run to stake a lead for Tim Lincecum, who was at his brilliant best for five innings.
Then came the sixth. And just as it happened a night earlier, the Dodgers fixed bayonets just when Giants manager Bruce Bochy was caught in between a rock (a tiring starter) and a hard place (a less than trustworthy bullpen).
Lincecum broke down and the Dodgers literally zoomed past, taking advantage of both the right-hander and catcher Hector Sanchez as Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier, the tying and go-ahead runs, both stole their way into scoring position.
Ethier’s single scored Ramirez, A.J. Ellis’ double snapped the tie and Kershaw yielded no more as the Giants lost 4-2 and were swept in the three-game series at Dodger Stadium.
The Giants have never scored four runs off Kershaw, so the Dodgers’ four-run sixth pretty much settled matters.
It was the second consecutive night Bochy got caught between a quickly collapsing starter and the bullpen phone; against Lincecum and Mike Kickham, the Dodgers outscored the Giants 7-0 in the sixth inning over the final two games of the series.
Until the sixth, the Giants had followed the same formula they used to defeat Kershaw last year, when Ryan Vogelsong made Brett Pill’s two-run home run stand up in a 2-1 victory.
The Giants remained 3 ½ games out in the NL West, but they’re in fourth place – and now the surging, mending Dodgers are just 2 ½ games behind their archrivals.
Starting pitching report
Lincecum had to be extra motivated for this start. He was opposing Kershaw for the first time since 2011, when he had a 1.24 ERA in four head-to-head matchups yet the Giants came out on the losing end each time.
The four epic duels inspired a memorable ESPN The Magazine cover in which Lincecum has Kershaw in a headlock, delivering champion noogies.
Lincecum (4-8) came out delivering something else over his first five innings. He threw strikes while mixing four pitches to hold the Dodgers to one run, on Ramirez’s hard single in the third.
Lincecum only walked one batter over those five innings, and he only had one other three-ball count. He threw a rainbow curve to freeze A.J. Ellis in the second inning and recovered from third baseman Pablo Sandoval’s error in the fourth by getting Juan Uribe to ground into a double play.
But a rejuvenated Ramirez is hitting everything hard these days, including a ground ball that found a seam with one out in the sixth. Then Lincecum fell behind 3-0 to Ethier, and Ramirez used the favorable count to his advantage by swiping second base.
It was an important 90-foot advance. Lincecum went fastball-curve-change to get the count full, but Ethier roped a slider into right field and Ramirez scored without a throw.
Then Ethier joined in the thievery, sliding into second base when Sanchez’s throw was a bit wide of the bag. It was another big steal, since Ethier almost surely wouldn’t have scored from first base on Ellis’ double.
Clearly, the Dodgers paid attention to the scouting reports. Sanchez is 0 for 9 in throwing out runners this season; opponents have stolen 14 times with Lincecum on the mound – the most against any pitcher in the majors without a caught stealing.
Making it more egregious: Ramirez and Ethier entered the inning with one stolen base between them all season.
After Uribe singled, the Dodgers made it 4-2 when Lincecum bounced a wild pitch that got past Sanchez to score Ellis. Although blocking balls in the dirt is not Sanchez’s best skill, this one was so wild that Jack Barry might have stirred in the grave.
Bochy hit the plunger there and then, removing Lincecum with a 2-1 count to Skip Schumaker. The right-hander ended up getting charged with four runs (all earned) on a career-high tying 10 hits in 5 1/3 innings. He walked one and struck out four.
Jose Mijares stranded Lincecum’s runner and the relief crew was unscored upon in two innings after that.
At the plate
Kershaw was Kershaw, although Posey followed Marco Scutaro’s walk with his 10th homer of the season in the fourth inning.
It was Posey’s second home run in as many nights. But after that, Kershaw retired 14 of the next 16 batters. Uribe made an error that allowed Scutaro to reach in the sixth and Sanchez, who singled in the fifth, was wiped out on Brandon Crawford’s double-play grounder.
Kershaw (6-5) gave up a leadoff hit to Scutaro in the ninth, and Dodgers manager Don Mattingly didn’t care to see his ace face Posey again.
Kenley Jansen entered and Posey muscled a single to center field to put the tying runs on base. But Jansen struck out Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval, then pinch hitter Brandon Belt hit a jammed fly ball to shortstop to end it.
Hard as it might be to fathom, Kershaw entered with a three-start losing streak; he won for the first time since May 20.
Center fielder Juan Perez picked up his team-leading fifth outfield assist in his 80th major league inning when he threw out Adrian Gonzalez trying to go from first to third in the third inning. Ramirez scored on the play as the throw was cut off.
Andres Torres got his first outfield assist of the season, even if it came in the team’s 78th game and his 381st defensive inning. He threw on target to nab Yasiel Puig trying to stretch a single in the fifth.
The Dodgers announced 41,721 paid – including noted actor and Giants fan Benjamin Bratt, who sat in the club seats with Giants CEO Larry Baer. Perhaps Baer was trying to recruit Bratt to play him whenever the Giants’ version of the “Moneyball” movie gets green-lighted.
The Giants enjoy a leisurely travel day to Denver – their last day off before the All-Star break -- before continuing this 10-game road trip with a three-game series at Coors Field. Noted Rockies killer Barry Zito (4-5, 4.40 ERA) is scheduled to start on Friday against right-hander Jhoulys Chacin (6-3, 3.92). Then it’ll be Matt Cain (5-4, 4.54) against left-hander Jorge De La Rosa (8-4, 3.19) on Saturday and Madison Bumgarner (7-5, 3.20) against right-hander Juan Nicasio (4-4, 5.31) on Sunday.