MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Even off his game, Kershaw still tough to top

Dodgers' superb lefty shows his mettle by grinding out win over Cubs

Even off his game, Kershaw still tough to top

CHICAGO -- So that's what Clayton Kershaw looks like when he's off his game?

Kershaw was anything but sharp in picking up his 20th win on Friday afternoon, in what surprisingly was only his second start at Wrigley Field. He even walked the leadoff hitter in the Dodgers' 14-5 win, which isn't what you expect from someone headed for his third National League Cy Young Award in four seasons.

"It makes us feel like he's human," Cubs utility man Chris Valaika said.

Maybe Kershaw ate some bad deep-dish. Maybe he was put off by the size of the lettering that has been added to the Trump Hotel. Maybe he was just disappointed that he didn't get to swing the bat against Edwin Jackson.

Whatever it was, you've got to say this: Kershaw had a great sense of timing in picking Friday to turn in a clunker.

With first-inning home runs by Matt Kemp and A.J. Ellis giving him a 6-0 lead before he threw a pitch, Kershaw could afford to have his least impressive start since May. And he did.

Michelangelo probably had a few bad ones himself when he painted the Sistine Chapel.

By making it through the fifth inning with an 8-3 lead, Kershaw raised his record to 20-3 in 26 starts on two continents. You don't need to call the Elias Sports Bureau to know that's a first.

The 26-year-old from Dallas, the best pitcher in the game by a wide margin, will join Pedro Martinez as one of the only two pitchers since World War II to finish with 20 wins while starting fewer than 30 games. Kershaw is having a season for the ages, even if the Cubs did bump his ERA from 1.70 to 1.80.

"He just competes," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "This guy is tough. He's pretty much always on a hunt. He doesn't want to let one guy get on. He's never taken anything for granted. If he's got a big lead, it doesn't matter. If he's in a tight game, he's pitching the same way. I just think he's all about execution and game-planning every time he goes out there."

All three runs Kershaw allowed were in the first inning, before his curveball began to resemble itself. Once he located that beast, the party was over.

"It was a battle," Kershaw said. "I don't know why. Chalk it up to just a bad day. My control wasn't good. My fastball was all over [the place]. The breaking ball wasn't breaking. It was just a grind."

While few of the young Cubs hitters had ever faced Kershaw, manager Rick Renteria saw him a lot more often than he wanted to when he was one of Bud Black's coaches in San Diego. He helped put together a plan of attack that worked well when Anthony Rizzo (double) and Jorge Soler (triple) followed Arismendy Alcantara's leadoff walk with ringing extra-base hits to right field.

"I thought we did a nice job of grinding out at-bats," Renteria said. "He tries to attack the strike zone immediately. He knows guys are going to try to get after him because his stuff is so good. I think [coaches] sat down and tried to get [hitters] to get comfortable, maybe see the first pitch, see how he's throwing, make it be a strike. They ended up doing a good job of trying to get him up."

Remember, this was a forgettable outing for Kershaw. That's the only context this can be viewed in. He needed 106 pitches to get through five innings and he allowed seven hits. Yet Kershaw still struck out nine, including seven of the last 13 Cubs he faced.

During this stretch, Kershaw got seven swinging strikes, most on fastballs and sliders. But his put-away pitch was the big, sharp curveball, the one that Vin Scully labelled "Public Enemy No. 1" when he first saw it in Spring Training six years ago, when Kershaw was a non-roster player headed for Double-A Jacksonville.

Junior Lake and Alcantara struck out swinging at curveballs. Soler and Valaika experienced paralysis as Kershaw's curveballs crossed the plate, easily inside Phil Cuzzi's strike zone, if not the normal range of believability.

Valaika had gotten hits in his first two at-bats -- an infield single in the second inning and a soft double that fell between second baseman Dee Gordon and right fielder Matt Kemp in the fourth inning. You can't blame Kershaw for giving him a double dose of the curveball when he got him into a 1-2 count the next time up.

Valaika laid off the first curve for a ball, getting the count to 2-2. But here it came again. All he could was look at that one and listen to Cuzzi ring him up.

"He's got pretty electric stuff," Valaika said. "The first one, that went in the dirt, started in the zone and the bottom fell out of it. Then he threw one that I thought was up, but with as much bite as he puts on it, it's right back in the zone. He throws it so hard, such a sharp pitch, when you see it up, you might give up on it early and it falls right back into zone."

In going 2-for-3 against Kershaw, Valaika probably had as much reason to celebrate as the guy who got his 20th win and seems headed toward an NL MVP Award. It was another day of work for baseball's best pitcher, who is happy he got this performance out of the way in September, not October.

"Obviously you want to go eight or nine and be the reason why the team won," Kershaw said. "Sometimes the team does it for you and you just happen to be out there."

The beauty of it is they all count.

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