On September 2, the Los Angeles Dodgers had a five-and-a-half game lead in the National League West over the San Francisco Giants, that evening's visitors. This being baseball, there was still somehow plenty to worry about. The offense had been sputtering, with Joc Pederson whiffing in bulk, Yasiel Puig a droopy replica of the threat he had been in seasons past, and a near-mummified Chase Utley filling in for an injured Howie Kendrick. A five-game losing streak had narrowed their hold on the division to a game and a half in August, and the team had just been no-hit twice in the space of ten days. The back end of their rotation was a gamble. On the whole, they looked less like the presumptive contenders they had been considered in April than a promising team resigned to a role as an extremely expensive annoyance to its own fans.
That night, Clayton Kershaw pitched a complete game and compiled statistics that lent the successive columns of the box score a sense of rising action. One run allowed, 15 strikeouts, 132 pitches. It was a masterpiece, but it wasn't artful. It was work, as evidenced by Kershaw's panting, sweat-logged countenance and the slowing tempo of his between-batter strolls. His fastball buffeted the strike zone. His slider and curveball, the latter quite the vision on a less dire evening, bounced often, sending catcher A. J. Ellis reaching and hopping in every direction even as they prompted flimsy swings.
The Dodgers won, 2-1, but moments after the game ended, Kershaw looked less proud of work accomplished than heedful of everything left to do. It made for a fittingly conflicted representation of a season that has been his most difficult in recent memory, and that may be the most enthralling of his remarkable career.
There is one notable difference between this season and the ones that came before. For the first time in four seasons, Kershaw is not the obvious best pitcher in baseball. He may not win this year's Cy Young Award, a trophy that seemed to have become his as a matter of routine. That honor could go to Jake Arrieta, the arm pacing the joyful Chicago Cubs, or to Kershaw's teammate Zack Greinke, a glowering, corner-dotting savant having the most numerically mind-boggling season of his career. Much of the cause for distinction between these players is now abstract—Kershaw got off to an uncharacteristically slow start this year, and has been himself since—but strings of early-season outings landing just to either side of the "quality start" margin count, even when they're part of April and May's cobweb-dusting regimen.
Kershaw's slippage, though, was our good fortune. It has been easy, in the past few seasons, simply to place Kershaw in the slot reserved for The Best and turn our attention to more flawed, and thus more compelling, pitchers. Who needed to watch Kershaw strike out twelve in San Francisco when he'd just done the same thing the week before in Pittsburgh? He'd spend six months dutifully compiling his chrome-plated stats, and at the end of it we'd cluck our appreciation and hand over his award. That was the deal, and if it wasn't exactly dramatic, it worked pretty well for all involved.
But an incremental drop-off—and the fall from "certain Cy Young winner" to "Cy Young candidate" is certainly incremental—allows, counterintuitively, for a more thorough appraisal. As Kershaw has become less automatic, he has become more intriguing to watch. We can see the muted variances of tactics and persona that previously had been lost in the glare of his brilliance.
The Kershaw that has replaced the supernova of past years is, principally, a worker. There are statistics that demonstrate this. There's the league lead in innings pitched, a career first if it holds; there are those steep single-game pitch counts. There is also, when Kershaw pitches, a plain visual sense of labor, one that, in years past, was folded conveniently into a larger narrative of dominance but that now seems an end in itself. The game now looks as difficult for him as it truly is.
His pitches seem not so much to pass through the strike zone as to crack it, like a block of concrete he's working to turn into rubble. His shoulder wrenches and his left arm comes straight over the top, and his face holds a furious focus. Kershaw's pitches—even his curveball, so often the subject of much florid huffing—seem stressed, as if they get their effectiveness from the same combination of control and exertion as an over-revved engine.
I happened to see Kershaw and Greinke pitch on successive nights from a seat high up in Dodger Stadium in early July. I was more eager to watch Greinke, then in the late stages of his Hershiser-challenging scoreless innings streak, but Kershaw's performance stuck with me. The glorious, smog-flared sunset of Chavez Ravine aside, that evening's vibe was about as free of meaning as midseason baseball gets. The hapless Phillies were in town, and the video boards spent the time before first pitch begging fans to pull out their cell phones and cast last-minute ballots for Kershaw in the All-Star Final Vote, a minor humiliation to which he never would have been subjected during a usual year.
Then Kershaw threw a complete game shutout, striking out 13, and pitched with that industrious style discernible from the cheap seats. From the windup, the high leg kick leading to the one-legged crouch, the drive forward, the chin-up finish. From the stretch, the quick, low stride ending the same way. The pitches—inside, out, fastballs, sliders, curves—were all variations on a single core diligence. The next evening, Greinke pitched to similar effect, going eight scoreless, but the impressions could not have been more different. The ethereal Greinke seemed to work with magnets and shadow, Kershaw with iron and rope.
Most important to the Dodgers, this maybe just slightly regressed Kershaw remains plenty good enough to keep the front of their rotation one of the best in baseball, and his penchant for going deep in games protects an uninspiring bullpen from overexposure. In each of his last seven starts, Kershaw has completed at least seven innings while allowing one earned run or fewer. With the offense remaining inconsistent even as the division lead has grown more comfortable, his continued success is essential to any postseason run the Dodgers might make.
More interesting to the rest of us, Kershaw may be providing a glimpse of what's to come whenever he passes his prime and settles into the stratum of pitchers just below the game's elite. That time is, we should all hope, a ways off, but how a pitcher negotiates it often colors the collective memory as much as his high-water mark does. If this year is any indication, watching Kershaw face the eventual diminishing of his dazzling talents will be brilliant in a more understated way, and an opportunity to see his less heralded skills in clearer relief.