The afternoon, unusual as it was, started off in such uplifting fashion. The Nationals used a pinch-hit home run from Matt den Dekker and three scoreless innings of relief from Aaron Barrett, Casey Janssen and Drew Storen to win the completion of Friday night's suspended game, 5-3 over the Dodgers.
And then Clayton Edward Kershaw, 27-year-old left-hander from Los Angeles via Dallas, took the mound at Nationals Park and all those good vibes dissipated into the thick midsummer air, overcome by as dominant a pitching performance as has been seen in these parts in a long time.
Over eight utterly brilliant innings, Kershaw turned the Nationals lineup into mincemeat. He allowed only three hits, all singles. He didn't issue any walks. He struck out 14 batters, most ever by an opposing pitcher since the Nats franchise arrived in town a decade ago. He induced 30 swings-and-misses, matching the most recorded by any major-league pitcher in the last seven years, during what wound up a 4-2 victory for the Dodgers.
"He put on a clinic today," said Bryce Harper, only the best hitter in the game at this moment. "He went out there and pitched like the MVP he is. It was devastating. We went in there and tried to do what we could. But he's the best pitcher in baseball. He's pretty tough."
The two guys who will take the mound Sunday afternoon for what is now the rubber game of this series — Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke — could certainly stake claim to that title right now. But what Kershaw has done over the last five seasons — three Cy Young Awards, the NL MVP, a 2.20 collective ERA — allows him to hold that distinction, even if 2015 has been a bit of a down year by his lofty standards.
And rarely has Kershaw, or anybody else, pitched as well as he did Saturday on sweltering South Capitol Street.
Over those eight innings, the Nationals managed three measly singles: Clint Robinson in the second, Doug Fister in the third, Danny Espinosa in the sixth. Those were the only men who reached base against him, with only Espinosa advancing beyond first base and only because of Justin Turner's throwing error.
And it's not like the other guys were hitting the ball hard right at Dodgers defenders. Only three of the 24 outs Kershaw recorded came via flyballs.
No, the Nationals barely could make contact against the tall Texan lefty. Kershaw struck out two batters in each of his first seven innings, inducing a staggering 30 swings-and-misses along the way.
"Unfortunately, I've seen that way too much," said manager Matt Williams, who previously coached the Diamondbacks, a regular NL West opponent of the Dodgers. "He's a pretty good pitcher. He establishes strikes and then goes down out of the zone. I don't know how many curveballs he threw today, probably 15 of them. He may have thrown one for a ball. That's why he's good."
Maybe the only mistake Kershaw made all day was not convince Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly to send him back to the mound for the ninth. With his starter's pitch count at 101 on one of the hottest days of the summer, and with his team up 4-0 at the time, Mattingly decided to send Kershaw to the showers and summon closer Kenley Jansen to the mound for the ninth.
That move gave the Nationals just a glimmer of hope. Washington native Emmanuel Burriss, getting his first career at-bat in D.C. while playing for his hometown team, singled up the middle to bring Harper to the plate. The 2015 MVP frontrunner then launched a Jansen pitch into the second deck in right field, his 27th homer of the season cutting the Dodgers' lead in half.
That's as far as the comeback ever got, though. Jansen struck out both Yunel Escobar and Robinson to end the game and ensure Kershaw's dominant stats would hold up. Over his last six starts against the Nationals, he is now 6-0 with an 0.97 ERA.
"When he's on like that, you better get lucky," said Harper, now 1-for-9 with six strikeouts (and a homer) in his career vs. Kershaw. "He's pretty impressive. We've just got to tip our cap to Clayton today and hopefully go over and get Greinke tomorrow and see where we're at by the [end of the] weekend."
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