LOS ANGELES -- The mystery has been solved. What's wrong with Clayton Kershaw? Absolutely nothing. He is right back in style, an artist at the top of his game. He may have strayed momentarily from his canvas, but he still has his brush and colors and can paint like nobody else.
Not quite one year removed from his masterpiece, a June 19 no-hitter against the Rockies at Dodger Stadium that was a Hanley Ramirez error away from perfection, Kershaw once again had all the right stuff moving in all the right corners and spots in Saturday night's 2-0 decision against the Cardinals.
"I think I just executed some fastballs away that were pretty well located," Kershaw said, summing up in about 140 characters. "And maybe that was the best slider/curveball combination I've had in a while."
The best team in the Major Leagues by record, the Cards got a second-inning single through the middle from future star Randal Grichuk and nothing more against the reigning National League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner.
"Getting the results I want, finally," Kershaw said.
He walked two men and hit his primary tormentor, Matt Carpenter, with a pitch. He racked up 11 strikeouts across eight innings before turning it over to closer Kenley Jansen for the finishing touches.
"It's the evolution of Clayton -- finding new ways to put guys away," said catcher A.J. Ellis, Kershaw's trusted partner. "He has confidence in using both sides of the plate. You've got to game-plan, but it comes down to executing. This was probably his best execution of the season."
Dropping a 4-0 decision to Madison Bumgarner in San Francisco on May 21 left Kershaw at 2-3 with a 4.32 ERA. He held the Braves scoreless at home across seven innings in his next start and then limited the Rockies on two runs in seven innings in Denver. Those were previews of the coming attraction: his dismissal of the 37-19 Redbirds.
Yasiel Puig, whose ringing seventh-inning double off Jaime Garcia gave Kershaw the lead following Chris Heisey's leadoff double, wasn't the only star welcomed back by the faithful. Kershaw was accorded the respectful superstar treatment from the fans his career has warranted, October blips notwithstanding.
Nobody has to remind Kershaw of his 0-4 postseason record in five starts against the Redbirds, of his 6.14 ERA across 29 1/3 innings in NL Division and Championship Series play against St. Louis. He can be his own most severe critic, as in his analysis of his latest effort.
"I still walked two guys -- that can't happen, obviously," he said.
His return to peak form coming against his primary nemesis had to make it all that much sweeter for Kershaw -- even if he's never been one to pound his chest in triumph.
"No," he said, dismissing a question about any special relevance attached to muzzling the Cards. That was one avenue he wasn't willing to travel.
Clearly, there is no point in Kershaw's mind in reviewing any of the details of his demise in St. Louis in Game 4 of last October's NLDS or in Game 1 at Dodger Stadium. That's buried history for an athlete who is as fiercely competitive as anyone in his sport.
Shaving his ERA to 3.36 with his fifth win in eight decisions and third in a row, Kershaw looked precisely like the man who has claimed an unprecedented four consecutive MLB ERA titles.
His fastball was crisp, reaching 95 mph, and his breaking stuff was virtually unhittable.
"It puts pressure on you when you have to cover both sides of the plate with three different speeds," said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, a hit man with few peers in his youth. "When he gets it rolling, he makes it tough."
After hitting Carpenter with an inside delivery ending an eight-pitch at-bat -- the third baseman departing three innings later with a right triceps contusion -- Kershaw got Matt Holliday to rap into a double play to end the first.
Grichuk's one-out single on a 2-1 fastball in the second was followed by strikeouts of Mark Reynolds and Yadier Molina. Not a single Cardinal was going to reach scoring position -- Kershaw was having none of that nonsense this time.
"He's pretty much amped up every time he goes out there," Mattingly said a few hours before Kershaw threw his first pitch to Cards leadoff man Peter Bourjos. "He might have been a little too amped up last year."
Three men pivotal to the Dodgers' success -- Kershaw, Puig and Jansen -- made it a night to remember for the partisans in the crowd.
A roar went up when Jansen put away Holliday with a third strike to end it. As Randy Newman belted out "I Love L.A.," Tinseltown was aglow. The great Kershaw was all the way back.
Lyle Spencer is a national reporter and columnist for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @LyleMSpencer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.