Clayton Kershaw knew you were plotting to give his throne as the best pitcher on the face of the earth to Jose Fernandez. He discovered you were scheming to hasten the ascension of Max Scherzer. He could hear you talking in hushed tones, suggesting Adam Wainwright or Johnny Cueto were truly the preeminent starting pitcher in the game today.
Kershaw heard all that during the six weeks he spent on the DL with a strained muscle in his back. He saw Fernandez rack up 65 strikeouts while allowing just nine earned runs in 46 2/3 innings. He watched as Max Scherzer cruised to a 4-1 record, 1.72 ERA, and 5/1 K/BB ratio in his first seven starts. He bided his time, making sure he was healthy as Fernandez, Wainwright and Cueto made early plays for his NL Cy Young Award. And then, when Kershaw finally made his return Tuesday night, he did exactly what he almost always does. He dominated his opponent, this time the helpless Washington Nationals.
The still-reigning best pitcher on the planet was masterful in his first start since he took the ball in Australia in March, tossing seven shutout innings, striking out nine batters and walking none. He scattered nine hits and needed just 89 pitches to get through seven frames, throwing 68 of them for strikes. His fastball velocity sat at its typical 92-93 mph, and he used every pitch in his repertoire. He was the Kershaw we've all come to appreciate, and opposing hitters have come to fear.
Kershaw looked great right from the jump in the nation's capital. He got Denard Span to ground out, struck out Anthony Rendon, and induced a popup by Adam LaRoche in the first. He gave up a leadoff single to Scott Hairston in the second, but got a foul popout from Ian Desmond and a double-play ball from Danny Espinosa to end the inning. He fanned two more batters in the third, then got out of a first-and-second, nobody-out jam in the fourth with a popout by LaRoche and back-to-back strikeouts of Hairston and Desmond.
The Nationals got three hits in the sixth, but Kershaw was again able to wriggle off the hook. First, he picked off Rendon after the Washington third baseman led off with a single. After back-to-back weak singles by Jayson Werth and LaRoche, Kershaw shut down the budding rally by again striking out Hairston and Desmond. After one more strong inning, and with an 8-0 lead, Kershaw left the game, giving way to the bullpen. Dodgers relievers gave up a few runs, but ultimately held on for the 8-3 victory.
Not only was Kershaw's fastball velocity right at his regular average, he maintained it from pitch No. 1 through No. 89. His curveball was as sharp and filthy as ever, and he made Rondon look bad on the changeup, evidenced here:
[mlbvideo id="32651973" width="600" height="336" /] Few teams could survive losing their ace -- who doubles as one of the very best players in the majors -- for six weeks, but the Dodgers have done better than that. The win Tuesday pushed them to 19-15, two games behind the Giants in the NL West, whom they play this weekend. With Kershaw back in the rotation and an upcoming schedule that includes the Diamondbacks, Mets and Phillies, the Dodgers are primed to go on a run, and the starting pitcher hierarchy has been restored.