LOS ANGELES -- Mike Leake likes to pitch against aces. He says he enjoys the challenge. He smiles as he talks about loving to compete.
But there's a level beyond "ace," one that turns a competition into something else entirely.
Madison Bumgarner pitched in that stratosphere for a month last fall, and Clayton Kershaw, the reigning MVP reaches it often during the regular season. Few can grab a game and choke the life out of it like Bumgarner and Kershaw, and on Wednesday night Kershaw showed that for all the questions about his ability to come through in October, he sure as hell knows how to turn it up a notch in the big moments of this rivalry.
Kershaw was at 127 pitches after Buster Posey singled the tying run to second in the ninth, and with closer Kenley Jansen unavailable, the left-hander was part of a meeting on the mound. Don Mattingly walked out slowly, but Kershaw stayed in the game. He got ahead of Marlon Byrd with two sliders registering at 88 and 89 mph. Kershaw’s 130th pitch was a 95 mph fastball. His 131st pitch was a 91 mph slider.
Kershaw’s 132nd pitch tied his career high. The slider that Byrd swung through also gave Kershaw his 15th strikeout and clinched a 2-1 Dodgers win and a sweep over the Giants. Matt Duffy watched the final act from second base, knowing that while Kershaw’s command had dropped a tad in the ninth, he had plenty left in his arm.
“The location wasn’t very crisp but the stuff was still there,” he said. “I think a guy like him is going to be able to reach back when he needs it.”
Kershaw had that in him Wednesday night. The Giants didn’t. They’re banged up and reeling, and now they’re a season-high 6 1/2 games out of first place with 29 to play. They played well in this series and pitched well, but they dropped three straight one-run games. They never quite reached back for that big hit when they needed it.
“This is the last thing we wanted to happen,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “But hey, it happened.”
Leake did his best to avoid the sweep, throwing seven quick innings to nearly match Kershaw. His lone mistake came in the sixth, when he couldn’t deliver a shutdown inning right after the Giants had scored. Leake said he “yanked a fastball” to Chase Utley and it was deposited just over the wall.
“It’s a mistake I’m going to have to live with,” Leake said.
The right-hander gave up just the two runs, but he knew that might be too big a hole against Kershaw.
“With him, you know it’s going to be within a run,” he said. “He’s going to keep it a zero- or one-run game.”
Once again given the lead, Kershaw got back into his groove. He had faced the minimum through five innings, striking out seven and erasing the lone baserunner with a pickoff. He gave up a run in the sixth but struck out three in the seventh. The Giants got a pinch-hit single in the eighth, but Kershaw struck out two more in that inning to reach 107 pitches. A checked-swing strikeout by Brandon Belt brought Bochy out of the dugout for a second straight night, and again he was tossed by Mike Winters for arguing a call that went against the Giants.
“I don’t have anything to say about it,” Bochy said. “(Belt) didn’t go. It’s just frustrating. That’s all I’ll say.”
Kershaw kept the frustration going. He has a career-high 251 strikeouts already and he got Gregor Blanco swinging to get an out away from the win. That’s when Duffy, who had good at-bats all night, singled to left. Posey followed with his third single and the Giants had life. As hard as it was for the Giants to swallow, some in the clubhouse acknowledged that the moment in the ninth was about as good as it gets in regular season baseball: Giants vs. Dodgers … Kershaw and his rising pitch count vs. the heart of the Giants lineup … A two-game swing in the division on the line.
Byrd has been an RBI machine since a trade from the Reds, but he swung through Kershaw’s final pitch. It was the 95th strike of the night and the 35th swinging strike, the most in the Pitch F/X era.
“There’s nobody throwing the ball better,” Bochy said. “We scratched and clawed and put some pressure on there in the ninth. We couldn’t get it done.”
Kershaw, in on on-field interview that was shown on the scoreboard, said he understood how important the final moment was.
“Obviously trying to sweep them and get them further was huge for us,” he said. “We’ve got four more games against those guys so we can’t take it for granted, but we’re going to celebrate tonight.”
The Giants filed out of the park quietly and prepared to head to Coors Field. They have seven more games on this trip and they desperately need to make up ground.
“I think you look at it as, if we can gain a game a week going into that last series, we’ll be in pretty good shape,” Belt said.
The Dodgers come to AT&T Park on Sept. 28 for a four-game series. Bochy is hopeful that the division title hasn’t been wrapped up by then.
“You never lose hope. Stranger things have happened, trust me,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever done anything the easy way, anyway.”