For most of the afternoon, today’s matchup between Clayton Kershaw and Jered Weaver more than lived up to the hype, matching strikeouts, zeroes, and highlights. I don’t want to gloss over that, because it’s important, but hold that thought for the moment, and let’s not pretend you’re here to talk about anything but the ninth inning.
After Kershaw had allowed a Vernon Wells dinger in the top of the ninth, putting the Angels up 2-1, bloggers like myself were no doubt working furiously on the usual “great starting pitching wasted by atrocious offense” spiel. It’s the kind of thing we’ve written so often this season that we can basically churn them out in our sleep. The Dodgers would roll over and die, particularly with Dioner Navarro and Juan Uribe, starting the bottom of the ninth. They’d be swept by the Angels, a lost season would get even sadder, and we’d all move on with our lives.
Not today, though, in large part thanks to the wildness of Angels rookie closer Jordan Walden and some favorable umpiring in the ninth. Walden led off the frame by walking Uribe, and if giving the leadoff hitter a free pass isn’t already an unforgivable sin, walking the hapless Uribe is. Dee Gordon then ran for Uribe, and as I said at the time on Twitter, “never has there been a more appropriate lineup move than running Dee Gordon for Juan Uribe down 1 in the bottom of the 9th.”
Gordon took off for second, as everyone in the stadium knew he would, and he slid in safely. Or did he? There’s no doubt that he beat the Jeff Mathis throw, but as he slid head-first over the bag, he appeared to begin to get up, so that briefly he was on his hands and knees without his midsection touching the bag, and with the tag still applied on his back. You tell me:
Still, the call was safe, and with all of the bad karma this team has had this year, I’ll happily take it. Walden still couldn’t get it together and walked Navarro, nearly hitting him with the final pitch. Jamey Carroll stepped up and sacrificed Navarro and Gordon to second and third, and let’s talk about that for a second. Yes, it worked, and yes, Sam Miller of the Orange County Register did point out to me that statistically, it was the right thing to do. It just doesn’t sit right with me, though. You’ve got Gordon, perhaps the fastest man in the sport on at second base, able to score on nearly any hit to the outfield. You’ve got Carroll, one of the few Dodgers who have shown any skill with the bat this year, at the plate. To sacrifice him and give up one of your three precious outs in exchange for a non-guaranteed chance to move Gordon up 90 feet and leave the game in the hands of Aaron Miles and Tony Gwynn… well, I know it worked, I just didn’t like it at the time.
Anyway, that put men on at second and third for Miles. He hit a fly ball to a relatively shallow center field, where Peter Bourjos collected it and threw a laser to home. Gordon and the ball arrived at the same time, and Mathis did a wonderful job of blocking Gordon from the plate. Honestly, I’ve watched this replay a dozen times and I’m still not entirely sure. Gordon, coming in feet first, clearly didn’t get through Mathis, and his first attempt at swiping with his left hand came up short. What’s less clear is whether Mathis actually got the tag down; it looks to me like he probably did tag Gordon’s backside before Dee’s second attempt with the left hand made it, but it’s hard to say for sure. Again, you tell me:
For the second time in the inning, Gordon got the favorable call, and the game was tied.
(As an aside, and this has nothing to do with the terrible injury suffered by Buster Posey, I hate the rule that allows the catcher to block the plate like this. It’s one thing to not get out of the way of a runner because you’re trying to receive the ball, and it’s another thing entirely to prevent the runner entirely from accessing the plate. As you can see, Gordon was brought to nearly a complete stop by Mathis here. That sort of thing isn’t allowed at other bases, and it shouldn’t be allowed at the plate – it’s just unfair to the runner.)
But a tie isn’t enough, and so Gwynn walked to the plate with two down. (I’ll spare you my usual “Kershaw was in the books for a loss, then to a no-decision, then got the win, despite doing absolutely nothing in the bottom of the ninth to impact any of that” business for once.) Eight pitches into the at-bat, he flicked a pitch to right field, easily scoring Trent Oeltjen, who had run for Navarro.
Tony Gwynn, hero. Baseball’s a funny game sometimes.
As I said before, we’d be remiss to not acknowledge the pitching performance we saw from Kershaw and Weaver. The Dodgers put men on the corners with no outs in the fifth? No problem; Weaver induced a grounder from Kershaw and flyouts from Tony Gwynn & Casey Blake. Jeff Mathis leads off the sixth with a double, followed by Weaver attempting to sacrifice him to third? Not a concern; Kershaw leaped off the mound to snag the popped bunt before turning to nail Mathis for the double play at second, in a play that must be seen to be believed (I think I’ve reached my animated GIF quota for one day, okay?)
In the seventh, each side drew blood against the other ace, though both runs could be charitably described as “lucky”. Kershaw allowing a double to Erick Aybar looks bad in the box score, but it was a bloop that landed just in between left fielder Gwynn & shortstop Jamey Carroll which Aybar aggressively turned into two bases. He was then driven in on a Howie Kendrick single to center which fell just out of the reach of a diving Matt Kemp. As a legion of Dodger fans resigned themselves to a 1-0 loss, the Angels gave the run right back in the bottom of the frame. Kershaw led off with a single, and we’re going to have to stop jokingly saying that he’s better than any pinch-hitter who might replace him, because it’s basically true. Gwynn, hitting leadoff for reasons I can’t possibly comprehend, then crushed a ball to right field, scoring Kershaw. We’ll gloss over the fact that Vernon Wells really should have come down with the ball on the warning track and enjoy the rare good fortune that comes our way when it does. Of course, Wells earned that run right back with his go-ahead homer.
This is the 12th time in Kershaw’s career he’s put up double-digit strikeout numbers, though it’s the first time he’s done it in back-to-back starts, since he also struck out 11 Tigers last week. It also put him up to 128 K’s on the season, putting him back ahead of Justin Verlander for the most in baseball. That’s impressive, but that’s not what I liked the best about today; it was the fact that he did it without a single walk. Remember when we said that the only thing holding him back from megaultrastardom was harnessing the walks? Yeah, about that: his K/BB rate from 2008-11: 1.92, 2.03, 2.62, 3.66.
Clayton Kershaw, shiny golden god.