Bullpen preserves victory for Kershaw, Dodgers
By Jon Weisman
For the first time this season, the Dodgers asked their bullpen to go three innings to protect a Clayton Kershaw lead — a 1-0 lead at that.
And the bullpen, which is back on one of its hot streaks during an eventful season, did the job.
Joe Blanton, Pedro Baez and Kenley Jansen made Kershaw’s six shutout innings stand up, and the Dodgers scored late to finish with a 4-0 victory over Atlanta.
After getting 10 hits against Kershaw in April, ironically the most of any team in baseball this year, the National League’s losingest team was held to a more modest three against him tonight. But the Braves did test him plenty, putting runners in scoring position in half of his six innings.
In fact, Atlanta had runners on third base in the second and third innings, but each time, Kershaw took control of matters. He struck out Adonis Garcia to end the top of the second, then made a tough play on a dribbler in front of home plate — fielding, whirling and firing a throw to first base to finish the top of the third.
Moments later, Kershaw would reach base on a single — hit at 97 mph, harder than anything he had allowed at that point — advance to second on Corey Seager’s walk, and then score on Justin Turner’s single. Kershaw’s run almost didn’t count, because Seager made a daring attempt to go from first to third, barely eluding a tag that would have come before Kershaw crossed the plate.
That was the only run for the Dodgers through six innings, giving Kershaw little margin for error. (Believe it or not, the Dodgers are still averaging 4.7 runs per Kershaw start in 2016). Then in the sixth, he was challenged after hitting Bud Norris with a pitch — the first opposing pitcher he has hit in his career. One out later, Chase d’Arnaud put himself on as the go-ahead run with an infield single. It wasn’t until the 27th pitch of the inning that Kershaw escaped with a 107 mph grounder to Seager.
That inning not only cost Kershaw virtually any chance at a complete game, it ultimately drove his removal before the seventh inning for the first time in 12 starts this year. Kershaw was at 96 pitches when his night ended — tied for his second-lowest total of the season, though many of those pitchers were stressful.
He allowed five baserunners, while striking out four — his lowest total in a game since May 17, 2014, when Arizona knocked him out after 1 2/3 innings. Still, Kershaw lowered his magnificent ERA to 1.46, and though he walked his sixth batter of the season, his strikeout-walk ratio remains a sterling 18.2.
Joe Blanton was the first reliever, and he promptly allowed a leadoff single to Nick Markakis. One out later came a bizarre play, in which Garcia hit a sinking liner to center that Joc Pederson caught. In fact, just about everyone was so sure Pederson caught it that Markakis retreated to first base. However, it was ruled a trap on the field, and officially, Garcia was awarded first base on an 8-3-6 forceout.
Garcia then stole second, but Blanton was able to strand him there.
Pedro Baez came in for the eighth inning. He struck out pinch-hitter Mallex Smith, before allowing a single to Ender Inciarte. But Inciarte was caught stealing, and Baez downed d’Arnaud on strikes.
The Dodger offense finally created some breathing room in the bottom of the eighth, when Turner doubled and went to third on an Adrian Gonzalez groundout. After Trayce Thompson walked for a career-high third time, Pederson bunted perfectly to the first-base side of the pitcher’s mound for an RBI single.
Then, Thompson and Pederson executed a double steal. For Thompson, it was also his third stolen base of the night — making him the Dodgers’ first three-walk, three-steal player since his manager, Dave Roberts, walked thrice and stole four on April 9, 2004. The Dodgers also stole five bases as a team for the first time since April 13, 2014.
A.J. Ellis hit a sacrifice fly for the Dodgers’ third run, and pinch-hitter Yasmani Grandal singled home Pederson for their fourth.
With Jansen already warmed up for the save, he entered the game even with the suddenly outsized lead. Strangely, he walked Freddie Freeman — only Jansen’s second walk of the season. Even more strangely, Jansen caught the return toss from Ellis and threw it in disgust into the Dodger dugout without calling time, allowing Freeman to take second base on an error.
Freeman then advanced to third on Jeff Francoeur’s fly to right, but Markakis struck out and so did Tyler Flowers, and that was the ballgame.
Turner went 2 for 3 with a walk, and also made fine plays defensively at third base.