Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw pitched seven shutout innings against… (Victor Decolongon / Getty…)
Even by Clayton Kershaw's elevated standards, this was a special week.
Already considered one of the best pitchers in baseball, Kershaw looked as if he could be on the verge of becoming a force.
Kershaw was nearly perfect over the first seven innings of a Dodgers 1-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday, his performance as effortless as his four-hit shutout on opening day five days earlier.
Kershaw (2-0) held the visitors at Dodger Stadium to two hits, drawing the ever-growing admiration of teammates.
“That's what No. 1s do,” second baseman Mark Ellis said.
Ellis said Kershaw was as good a pitcher as he has played behind in his 12 major league seasons. Kershaw won the National League Cy Young Award two years ago, but Ellis predicted Kershaw would continue to get better. Kershaw is only 25.
“He's like the perfect player,” Ellis said. “He's got talent, he works hard and he cares a lot. It's hard to say anything bad about him.”
Kershaw said his best days could be ahead of him.
“You've got to be always developing,” he said. “If you're not getting better, you're getting worse. There's definitely things I've worked on in the past, definitely things I'm working on now to continue to improve. For me, it just starts with throwing strikes, keep pumping the strike zone and let the defense work. That's kind of my mindset.”
Kershaw used the Pirates' aggression against them, throwing only 62 pitches over the first five innings. He relied more on a slider than usual.
“My fastball wasn't great tonight,” he said. “I was reaching back and didn't have a whole lot in the tank for whatever reason.”
He had enough to strike out nine batters.
Former batterymate Russell Martin drew a walk against Kershaw in the seventh inning, becoming the first hitter this season to do so. Martin was subsequently picked off. Kershaw was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom half of the inning.
What made Kershaw's performance all the more impressive is that it was absolutely necessary, as the left-hander had to protect a one-run advantage his team gained in the third inning.
The Dodgers were two for 14 with men in scoring position and are hitting .130 (six for 46) in such situations.
A day after collecting his first hit of the season, Matt Kemp reverted to his previous form or, perhaps, something worse.
Kemp struck out in each of his first three at-bats, including twice with men in scoring position. His third strikeout drew a chorus of boos from the crowd.
In the seventh inning, he went to the plate with two on and one out and grounded into a double play, drawing more boos.
But more than players such as Kemp with extensive track records, Manager Don Mattingly is concerned about Luis Cruz. An overnight sensation last season who was selected the team's starting third baseman, Cruz is hitless in 17 at-bats.
“Cruz is a guy who doesn't have the same track record,” Mattingly said. “I don't want his confidence to go away.”
The only run of support Kershaw received came courtesy of Carl Crawford, who was two for three to raise his average to .438.
The fleet-footed leadoff hitter's stolen base in the third inning turned out to be the difference in the game, as it was followed up by Ellis' run-scoring single.
His start this season is a stark contrast to the last time he joined a new team. Hitless in his first two games with the Boston Red Sox in 2011, he was dropped from third in the lineup to seventh by then-manager Terry Francona and never recovered. Slowed by wrist and elbow problems, he was limited to 161 games over two seasons. His 2012 season ended with an elbow operation.