ANAHEIM, Calif. – In his 15 well-decorated years in the major leagues, there have been nights Clayton Kershaw has been more dominant.
There have been nights he was all the Los Angeles Dodgers had, and he figuratively took them upon his back and willed them to victory.
Yet not until Friday night at Angel Stadium, with a thunderous crowd urging him on, had Kershaw come so close to perfection.
At 34, with his fastball topping out at a mortal 92 mph but his command impeccable, Kershaw took a perfect game into the eighth inning, just six outs away from the first perfecto of his career and just the 24th in major league history. The record books would not be disrupted on this evening: Luis Rengifo led off the eighth inning by clubbing a slider into left field for the lone blemish on Kershaw’s evening.
Yet in shutting down the flailing Los Angeles Angels in a 9-1 victory before 44,648 fans that roared a bit louder with every clean inning and turned a road ballpark into Chavez Ravine South, Kershaw, through his deeds, all but demanded the ball to start Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium.
His words were less strident: Kershaw said there were pitchers with better resumes who are “more deserving than me,” and that he’s just happy to participate in his home ballpark.
Yet Friday was more proof that while Miami’s Sandy Alcantara (12 strikeouts in eight innings Friday) or Atlanta’s Max Fried (a 2.56 ERA in 40⅔ more innings pitched than Kershaw) might have a more compelling case, Kershaw offers a case that emerges from the record books.
“It’s a unique resume,” says Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “It’s the pitcher of a generation.”
In flirting with the second perfect game in Dodgers history and the first since 1965, when his fellow legendary lefty and mentor Sandy Koufax pulled it off, Kershaw showcased the smarts and command that made him a three-time Cy Young Award winner and still a dominant force, even as the crackle disappeared from a fastball that more regularly touched the mid-90s.
He struck out just six batters but walked nobody before departing after retiring the side in the eighth. He became the first pitcher to take a perfect game through seven innings twice in the same season since 1961; he set 21 Minnesota Twins down in order in his first start of the season in April, but Roberts, with the major leagues fresh off a 99-day lockout and Kershaw building back from an elbow injury that kept him from the 2021 postseason, lifted him before the eighth.
There were no such concerns Friday.
With one Angels legend, Shohei Ohtani, in the lineup and another, Mike Trout, sidelined with back spasms, an Angels lineup featuring four hitters batting .239 or less was no match for Kershaw. He needed just 59 pitches to navigate six innings, dotting the corners with his fastball, eliciting six swings and misses from his slider through five innings and occasionally making the Angels look foolish.
Kershaw was bidding for Major League Baseball’s first perfect game since Aug. 15, 2012, when Seattle’s Felix Hernandez set the Tampa Bay Rays down in order, the third perfecto that season.
MLB agent sues Doug Gottlieb: Casey Close sues Gottlieb over Freddie Freeman allegation, says he's gotten death threats
'I would watch Julio Rodriguez': MLB's youngest All-Star is generational talent for playoff-starved Mariners
Sign up for our sports newsletter: All the sports news you need to know delivered right to you!
Yet even as the art of hitting has devolved into historically bad league-wide batting averages, a full decade has passed since the last perfect game. Kershaw himself came about as close as you could: On June 18, 2014, Kershaw threw his only career no-hitter. He struck out 15 Colorado Rockies, a record in a no-hitter, and remains the only pitcher to throw a no-hitter, strike out 15 and walk nobody in the game. The lone blemish came on a Hanley Ramirez throwing error to lead off the seventh.
Friday, the tables were turned a bit. The Angels scorched seven hard-hit balls – with an exit velocity of 95 mph or more – against Kershaw. The lefty benefited from several dazzling defensive plays, most notably a wildly athletic sprawling dive and throw from Justin Turner to rob leadoff hitter Michael Stefanic in the fourth inning. Hanser Alberto, deep in the shift, hauled in a line drive.
In the bottom of the seventh, shortstop Trea Turner, as is his wont, made a smooth sliding grab and throw to retire Stefanic on a hard-hit ball up the middle. Ohtani, the great two-way player who entered the game with 19 home runs, was next.
Kershaw attacked, throwing four straight fastballs, getting Ohtani in a 1-2 count and many in the crowd on their feet in anticipation. Finally, he spiked a curveball in front of the plate. Ohtani flailed.
Strike three. And an Angel Stadium crowd more accustomed to toasting Ohtani roared, Dodger fans invading by the thousands but surely a few Angels supporters won over by history.
“You really felt the crowd wanting it for me,” Kershaw said, “which is cool.”
After Rengifo’s solid double, Kershaw quietly retired the side and waved his appreciation to the crowd after finishing the eighth, on a night Roberts said he knew Kershaw “wanted it bad.” Yet more history awaits.
Standing ovation for Kersh. pic.twitter.com/HjCcfO0o5r
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) July 16, 2022
The Dodgers are unstoppable at the moment, winning for the 13th time in 15 games. They’re just 2½ games behind the once indomitable Yankees for baseball’s best record. Their two best players who are not All-Stars, catcher Will Smith and first baseman Freddie Freeman, cannot be retired: Freeman extended a hot streak to 15 hits in 17 at-bats with a first-inning single. Smith singled twice, doubled, tripled and walked and has nine hits in his last 15 at-bats.
Kershaw, once cursed, should have an excellent shot at adding another World Series title to the crown the club claimed in the playoff bubble of 2020. His back woes of the past, his elbow scare of 2021, the joint inflammation that cost him a month of this season – they are for now in the past and Kershaw’s ERA, now 2.13, is the lowest its been since he posted a 1.69 mark in 2016.
Perhaps someone else will get the All-Star nod. Kershaw totes a heavier resume, as 25 up, 24 down on Friday night so deftly reminded us.
“I know he hates the word vintage,” Roberts said, a glass of red wine on his desk awaiting, “but that was vintage.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Clayton Kershaw in 'vintage' form for Dodgers against Angels