With Fourth of July fireworks popping in the distance and plumes of red sparks piercing the sky above the darkening hills behind Dodger Stadium, Clayton Kershaw staged his own pyrotechnics display on the pitching mound Tuesday night.
Every start by Kershaw carries with it the tantalizing promise of becoming something special, of turning into a double-digit strikeout masterpiece or a thrilling no-hitter. He has the power to make the best hitters look foolish and to bring a sellout crowd of 53,159 to a hushed silence, and he accomplished both of those difficult tasks by striking out 11 over seven scoreless and suspenseful innings in the Dodgers’ 4-3 victory over Arizona.
“I really pecked away and threw a lot of pitches and I just tried to stay in there as long as I could,” said Kershaw, who threw 117 pitches, 76 of them strikes. “It worked out.”
There’s an understatement.
Kershaw didn’t give up a hit to the Diamondbacks for 61/3 innings, no small feat because they entered the game ranked in the top four in the National League in batting average, runs, hits, runs batted in and slugging percentage. They also stood only 2½ games behind the NL West-leading Dodgers, one of the biggest surprises in baseball after they had slogged through an injury-marred and disappointing 2016 season.
Still, with Kershaw having good command of his fastball and effective off-speed pitches, the Diamondbacks couldn’t get a hit off him until Chris Owings tapped a grounder to the right side with one out in the seventh. After a moment of sadness the crowd gave Kershaw a standing ovation.
A sharp single with two out by Chris Iannetta — who drew the only two walks Kershaw issued in seven innings — and a rising pitch count meant Kershaw’s evening was coming to a close. Recognizing that, the crowd rose to its feet in tribute again after Daniel Descalso’s inning-ending grounder to second.
“I think I made Doc’s job a little easier by giving up a hit,” Kershaw said, referring to manager Dave Roberts. “He didn’t have to worry about keeping me in or not.
“No-hitters, really after the seventh inning you start thinking about it. After six it’s not really in the forefront of my mind.”
The standing ovation he received after he gave up the infield hit to Owings was rewarding, Kershaw said, but he knew he couldn’t allow himself to relax. “The biggest key there is not to exhale,” he said. “It’s still 3-0 at that time and one swing of the bat can put them right back into the game. So you have to really focus.”
His 11-strikeout night was his 57th career performance of recording 10 or more strikeouts and his sixth this season, but he didn’t consider it a work of art. “They battled me and my pitch count got up there a little bit. A lot of foul balls and grind-it-out at-bats for them,” he said. But it was exactly what the Dodgers needed in order to put some distance between themselves and the Diamondbacks.
A three-game sweep of Colorado in late June had given them some breathing room over the Rockies, and winning this three-game series against Arizona would strengthen their hold on first place as they near the All-Star break, which will follow a three-game interleague series against Kansas City this weekend.
“It’s a good win. This is a team right behind us. They’re playing great baseball. They’re a really good team over there,” Kershaw said after earning his major league-leading 13th victory in 15 decisions this season. “For us to get the first one of the series is big.”
After he had spoken for a few minutes, the sound of loud booms from the Dodgers’ postgame fireworks show caught his attention. “I’ve gotta go. Fireworks,” he said to reporters gathered at his postgame news conference, rising from his chair and sprinting out of the room. “I love you guys. See you later.”
The postgame fireworks were loud and colorful and the music was stirring, an altogether fine way to end the holiday. But it still didn’t compare to the display Kershaw had put on.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen