By Jon Weisman
Ever so rarely, Clayton Kershaw will be less than perfect, and the baseball world will scramble its jets to understand why.
Almost without fail, the why is beside the point. The essential answer is that nobody is always perfect. Not even Kershaw.
In the second inning tonight, the Pirates ambushed the likely National League All-Star starter, scoring every run that it needed in a 4-3 victory, Pittsburgh’s eighth straight home win against the Dodgers.
Kershaw has lost two of those games, allowing four runs on nine hits with two walks in each. In only one other game in the past 12 months has Kershaw allowed at least four runs.
He struggled more often than usual to put away hitters, and never was that more clear than with his only strikeout of the first five innings. Chad Kuhl, the Pirates pitcher making his MLB debut, fouled off five pitches before going down in his first big-league at-bat.
That came with one out in the second inning, after Kershaw had already allowed two singles and his eighth walk of 2016. Needing one more strike to escape the bases-loaded jam, Kershaw couldn’t get it. With the count 1-2, Adam Frazier hit a 206-foot single to left field to score a run.
That pitch wasn’t hit hard, but the very next pitch was: David Freese’s double to deep right-center cleared the bases. Kershaw, who had allowed four second-inning runs in his first 15 starts of 2016, doubled that total in his 16th.
The Dodgers tried to rally from the 4-0 deficit behind their suddenly scarred hero. In the third, Justin Turner followed Corey Seager’s double with his eighth homer of June, to cut the lead in half. In the fifth, Turner followed a Seager walk with an RBI double, and the lead was down to one.
Turner nearly brought home the tying run himself, but he was thrown out trying to score from third on a potential wild pitch.
Kershaw didn’t allow another run, though he was in trouble two more times. His third and fifth innings were perfect, but in the fourth inning, Kershaw needed Pederson’s 96.3 mph throw home to nail Sean Rodriguez attempting to score with two out on another Frazier single.
In the sixth, Starling Marte singled but was caught stealing. With two out, Chris Stewart doubled, and the Dodgers had Kershaw walk Rodriguez intentionally — Kershaw’s first intentional walk in more than a year, and his first two-walk game since September. Pinch-hitter Gregory Polanco, who homered to end Kershaw’s 37-inning scoreless streak last year, struck out.
Kershaw went out for a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning, his night done at 98 pitches with nine hits allowed, two walks and four strikeouts, matching his season low. His ERA rose from 1.57 to 1.79, and his strikeout-walk ratio fell to 16.1 — still remarkable, though he now needs 35 consecutive strikeouts to get it back to the rarefied air of 20.0.