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MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Some of game's best pitchers starving for run support

Some of game's best pitchers starving for run support

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Some of game's best pitchers starving for run support

MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Chris Sale and Kris Medlen could use a hug. Even better would be a heart-to-heart with Clayton Kershaw. Here's a man who knows all about pitching on the edge, without the luxury of run support.

Kershaw's Opening Day assignment this season was all too familiar. The Dodgers ace was dominant, but the Giants' Matt Cain -- another authority on the subject of non-support -- matched him zero for zero.

It was still scoreless, Cain having departed, when Kershaw stepped in to face George Kontos in the eighth inning. Summoning all the upper-body thrust he'd been using against Giants hitters, Kershaw launched the first home run of his career to center field. Then he went back out and completed his shutout.

Medlen followed the Kershaw formula on June 8 against Clayton's club, beating the Dodgers, 2-1, with a Dodger Stadium solo blast. Sale, operating in the American League with its designated hitter, doesn't have that option as often.

As we move toward midseason, Kershaw, Sale and Medlen are stars looking for some love from their hitters.

"You can't let the score dictate how you pitch," said Kershaw, who leads the National League with his 1.84 ERA. "The main thing you have to understand is that your job is to not give up runs, whether it's 0-0 or 8-0.

"It does get overwhelming and tough when you think about all the 0-0 games, but your record's not always reflective of how you're pitching. Wins and losses aren't something you can control. What you can control is how you pitch."

Among all Major League pitchers this season, only the Marlins' Ricky Nolasco and Sale have been given fewer runs than Kershaw. Nolasco, who got a rare seven-run eruption behind him against the Cards on Sunday, is 4-7 with a 3.61 ERA.

The Dodgers have averaged 2.77 runs for Kershaw, who is third on the list between Sale (2.74) and Medlen (2.88).

Kershaw is 5-4, Sale 5-5, Medlen 3-7. That might shed light on the meaning of won-loss records.

Kershaw, who won the 2011 National League Cy Young Award and finished second last season to R.A. Dickey, is accustomed to narrow margins for error.

Going back to his 2008 rookie season, only six pitchers have been given fewer runs than Kershaw's 4.08. Mariners ace Felix Hernandez has drawn the least support with 3.81 runs over this stretch. Jason Vargas, King Felix's former teammate now with the Angels, is right behind him at 3.89, with Cain (4.06) fifth.

On the flip side of the run-scoring equation stand a pair of beaming Tigers. With Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Torii Hunter banging away, Detroit is averaging 7.57 runs for Max Scherzer and 6.83 for Justin Verlander, the No. 1 and No. 5 most lavishly supported starters in the game.

No wonder Anibal Sanchez, acquired by the Tigers from the Marlins last year, was so happy about remaining in Detroit armed with a new five-year deal.

The Majors' fifth most undernourished pitcher in 2011 with 3.71 runs per game, Sanchez now is among the most well supported with 6.39 runs per outing.

You'll also hear no complaints about their offense from Bartolo Colon of the A's (7.02 runs per game), the Cardinals' Lance Lynn (7.22), the Rockies' Juan Nicasio (6.93), Jon Lester of the Red Sox (6.72), the Orioles' Josh Hammel (6.69) or the Rangers' Yu Darvish (6.42).

Strangely, the Braves are having no trouble scoring for Mike Minor (6.75) or Paul Maholm (5.42). Perhaps they're pressing for Medlen.

The game can be maddening in its feast or famine nature. Cain can take to the lecture circuit on that subject.

His record through his first seven seasons was 69-73, but he was widely regarded among insiders as one of the game's best, most durable starters.

Even during the Giants' 2010 World Series championship season, Cain frequently was starved for runs. He went 13-11 with a 3.14 ERA before a near-perfect run through the postseason.

It all came together for Cain in 2012 when he went 16-5, helping drive the Giants to another championship and throwing a perfect game along the way.

In reflection, Cain is convinced all those seasons of coping with low-scoring games made him stronger.

"Yeah, it definitely did," he said. "I think it definitely taught me how to pitch in close situations and in close games, try to find ways to dig yourself out of sticky innings, things like that. So I think it definitely benefited me early in my career to learn how to do that -- and I think it's definitely made me better."

Giants manager Bruce Bochy was managing the Padres during Cain's early-career struggles with run support and was impressed with the way he handled it.

"Matt's unflappable, and that comes from being mentally strong and having to deal with tough times," Bochy said. "He's had to deal with more of it than anybody on this club. These players are out to win, but they like to see their numbers look good, too.

"He never wavers. He's lost some tough ones where he gave up a hit or two, but he never shows frustration, never points fingers [or says], 'Oh, pitiful me.'"

An All-Star in 2012 with 5.48 runs of support, 13th highest in the Majors, Sale is producing another stellar season for the White Sox. His 2.43 ERA is fourth best in the AL.

"You just get tired of saying the same stuff every night, as far as struggling [offensively]," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "Sale pitches a good game. It's tough to be a pitcher when you can't give up a run."

James Shields, the centerpiece of the Royals' blockbuster deal with the Rays, has done his part, but Kansas City's offense is giving him only 2.97 runs of support, sixth lowest in the Majors. He's between the Marlins' Kevin Slowey (2.96) and the Padres' Eric Stults (2.98).

The Pirates' A.J. Burnett has a 3.12 ERA but is 4-6, the Pirates scoring only 3.02 runs for the veteran right-hander.

Kyle Lohse, who moved from the high-flying Cardinals to the Brewers as a free agent, is drawing 3.16 runs per start, ninth lowest. Rounding out the top 10 is Cole Hamels, getting 3.21 runs from his Phillies.

In Atlanta, the booming Braves seem to go on mute when Medlen takes the mound. He savored his big blow to right-center that beat the Dodgers.

"For me to hit my first home run here, it's kind of cloud nine," said Medlen, who grew up about a half-hour from Dodger Stadium in Norwalk, Calif. "I'm kind of speechless. I've had dreams of doing that for the Dodgers as an infielder, but I'll take it."

Even legends have to cope with dismal run support.

In 1987, Nolan Ryan led the NL in strikeouts with 270 and ERA at 2.76. He ran fifth in the Cy Young Award balloting, and there were those who thought he should have been higher. His record: 8-16. The Astros averaged 3.53 runs for him, fourth lowest in the Majors.

As the Angels' ace in 1976, Ryan finished 17-18 despite leading the AL in strikeouts (327) and with a 3.36 ERA in 284 1/3 innings. The team scored 3.10 runs for him.

When a man in a high place once called Ryan a .500 pitcher, it was like referring to Rembrandt as a half-decent artist.

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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