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By Jon Weisman
Weekday afternoon games seem to have a way of bringing out the weirdness at Dodger Stadium. Oh, it’s probably no different proportionally than weeknight games or weekend games, but maybe all that sun exposure adds an extra level of head-spinning.
The last time the Dodgers hosted a 12:10 p.m. game, 55 weeks ago, they tied it in the ninth and 12th innings before losing in the 14th. So if ever an 80-pitch Clayton Kershaw outing and a Chris Heisey grand slam were going to be par for the course, why not today?
On a blazing second day of fall that seemed even hotter than the 89-degree first-pitch temperature, with the Dodgers trailing, 3-0, Don Mattingly pinch-hit for Kershaw in the bottom of the fifth, preferring to save some of his ace’s bullets for next week at San Francisco and beyond. Kershaw, the competitor, jawed at Mattingly in the dugout, and Mattingly, the manager, stood and counterpointed.
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Then, both watched the Dodgers send 10 men to the plate and score six runs, the final four on Heisey’s first home run as a Dodger, a 344-foot shot that curled just beyond the left-field foul pole. It wasn’t Heisey’s first big hit as a Dodger, but it was his biggest.
“I had a tough year, up and down, haven’t played like I wanted, but it’s nice to help the team get a win, especially when we need wins to clinch a playoff berth,” Heisey said. “I know Clayton didn’t want to come out of the game. He pitched well, gave up a few runs, but I felt he was in pretty good control. He was a little frustrated coming out, but it was great to get him the win, like I said, and get the team the win.”
Coming shortly after Howie Kendrick’s two-run single, it was the crowning blow of a 6-3 Dodger victory that reduced the magic number for clinching the National League West to four.
Justin Ruggiano came over to a seemingly stunned Kershaw and gave him a big bear hug, as if to say, “Yes, it’s okay.”
“For Clayton Kershaw, he has been on an elevator of emotions,” Vin Scully said. “He appeared angry, I’m only guessing from long distance, angry, frustrated, disappointed. Then he looked depressed. And now, he has to be somewhat elated.”
"Grand Slam Heisey they call him," – Vin just now, as if that grand slam was like a 50-year-old legend.
— Dodger Insider (@DodgerInsider) September 24, 2015
Despite the low pitch count, it had been a busy day for Kershaw. He gave up three runs for the first time since allowing four August 7 at Pittsburgh, and for the first time at Dodger Stadium since June 17 against Texas. In leaving after five innings, his MLB-record streak of 31 consecutive quality starts at home came to an end.
At the same time, he still struck out nine, giving himself 281 for the season, the highest total for a Major Leaguer since Randy Johnson struck out 290 in 2004. With two scheduled starts remaining — including one in San Francisco on September 29 — Kershaw still has a chance to become the first 300-strikeout pitcher since Johnson and Curt Schilling each topped the mark in 2002.
“He doesn’t ever want to come out,” a smiling Mattingly said after the game, adding that he expected Kershaw would have only pitched one more inning if he had been left in the game to hit.
“I’ve seen him like that before. … It never bothers me. Those guys who are competitive, want to stay in the game, that never bothers me at all. That’s just part of it. I’ve got to make that decision, he can not like it, we’ll be able to talk about it later, and it’s not going to be a big deal.
Mattingly noted that he was contemplating pinch-hitting for Kershaw in the bottom of the fourth, when if Scott Schebler had reached base, there would have been a bases-loaded, two-out situation. (Kershaw, according to Mattingly, made the point that he got a hit his last time up.)
In 240 career starts, today was the first time Kershaw went out trailing after five innings and got credited with the win. Kershaw himself declined to talk about the conflict, saying, “I’m not going to talk about that at all. If you guys want to talk about the game, I’m more than happy to talk about that.”
Given those parameters, here’s what he said:
“My curveball was terrible. I need to go back to the drawing board on that. Just a lot of two-strike hits — you can’t have that happen. They hit a couple balls hard, a few balls found holes, but you know what, they had a great gameplan.”
“I felt pretty crummy after that, and for those guys to step up like that, and Heis’ big swing of the bat right there. He’s such a gamer — I love Heis — for him to do that, in the kind of the year he’s had, it’s been unbelievable. I’m thankful, honestly. And obviously our bullpen, having to pick up four innings, did an amazing job. Definite team win, I was just happy to be a part of it.”
For Kershaw, who is third in the National League in pitches thrown this season with 3,218, today marked the fewest he had thrown in a game since a rain-shortened five-inning complete game June 8, 2014 at Colorado, when he threw 73. By innings, it was Kershaw’s shortest outing since September 19, 2014 at Wrigley Field, when he also allowed three runs in five innings.
The following start, Kershaw pitched eight innings in the division-clincher against the Giants.