Leader Watch: Kershaw seeks 5th ERA crown

Dodgers' ace shows no rust in return from DL on Friday

Leader Watch: Kershaw seeks 5th ERA crown

Clayton Kershaw was dominant in his return to the Dodgers, tossing six scoreless innings and striking out seven Padres in Los Angeles' 1-0 win on Friday. No one should be surprised.

Not only does Kershaw boast one of the greatest pitching resumes in history, but we saw him roar back from lower back pain in similar fashion just one year ago. The Dodgers' ace allowed only four earned runs over 28 innings in September 2016, after he'd missed 10 1/2 weeks with a sore back. If Friday's performance against San Diego was any indication, L.A.'s ace might be poised for a carbon-copy run this month.

Kershaw's start Friday lowered his ERA to 1.95, well ahead of Washington's Max Scherzer's 2.21 in second place in MLB. While Kershaw's focus is presumably on leading the Dodgers toward securing home-field advantage and, potentially, a spot in the World Series, there will be some added motivation for Kershaw down the stretch: His fifth National League ERA title.

The list of pitchers who have captured five league ERA titles includes some of the best to ever throw a baseball: Lefty Grove (nine), Roger Clemens (seven), Grover Cleveland Alexander (five), Walter Johnson (five), Sandy Koufax (five), Pedro Martinez (five) and Christy Mathewson (five).

Kershaw sat atop the official 2017 ERA leaderboard even before Friday's start, as he had already pitched 141 1/3 innings before going on the DL. Now, the lefty only needs to throw 14 2/3 more innings to officially qualify for the crown.

Kershaw whiffs Solarte

Kershaw has done the same things in 2017 that he's always done. Entering Friday, he had opened 68.9 percent of at-bats with a strike, the highest rate among all starting pitchers this year (min. 500 batters faced), according to Statcast™. He had fired a strike on 80 percent of his pitches thrown while behind in the count, also the game's highest rate (min. 400 pitches). Opponents had averaged an exit velocity of 84.4 mph on balls they put in play against him, third lowest among starters (min. 300 batted balls).

All of those factors and more gave Kershaw a .251 expected weighted on-base average allowed, fourth behind Scherzer, Boston's Chris Sale and Cleveland's Corey Kluber.

Kershaw re-enters play as an underdog behind Scherzer to win the NL Cy Young Award, but Scherzer's issues with neck pain has left the door open. Yet another ERA title, and a workload robust enough to meet the qualifications for that title, could help Kershaw change the conversation. In the meantime, the Dodgers -- who were historically great even in Kershaw's absence -- could rise to another level with their consummate ace back in the fold.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.