Clayton Kershaw is going to get worse. After all, after not allowing any runs in his first two starts, his ERA — which leads the major leagues for the third year in a row — can only go up. But Kershaw is also getting better, which is a scary thought for the rest of the National League.
Kershaw pitched seven scoreless innings Saturday night in a 1-0 victory over the Pirates, his seventh start in a row allowing one run or less.
"That's what number ones do. I'm not saying he's going to throw a shutout every time, but you're extremely surprised if he doesn't have a good outing," said second baseman Mark Ellis, who drove in the game's only run with a third inning single. "If he gives up two runs I think he's surprised, which is why he is who he is. I've been fortunate to be behind some pretty good pitchers in my career, and he's as good as there is."
Kershaw improved to 2-0 on the season and extended his scoreless inning streak to 20, dating back to 2012.
"You have to be always developing. If you're not getting better, you're getting worse. There are definitely things I've worked on in the past and I'm working now on and trying to improve," Kershaw said. "For me it starts with throwing strikes, to just keep pumping the strike zone and letting the defense work, that's kind of my mindset."
Throwing strikes for Kershaw meant not issuing a walk this season until his 53rd batter faced. His unintentional walk rate was 12.5% of batters faced in 2009. That improved to 8.6%, then 5.7% in his Cy Young Award winning season in 2011 before going up slightly to 6.5% last year.
On Saturday night the Pirates were trying to take advantage of Kershaw's strike throwing early, but it didn't work.
"They tried to jump him early, which is dangerous because he ended up not using many pitches," said manager Don Mattingly. "If you don't get him, he's in there for the long haul and you're kind of in trouble."
Kershaw allowed just two hits on the night, both to Starling Marte, and he struck out nine with just the one walk. And that was without his fastball in peak form.
"My fastball wasn't great tonight. I was reaching back and didn't have a lot in the tank for whatever reason," Kershaw said. "I was able to keep them a little off balance, and got some big 3-2 strikeouts with the slider."
Mattingly noticed the slider from the dugout.
"It seemed like his slider tonight had more depth. He had that thing biting down. You saw a lot of those check swings with two strikes when they were trying to hold up but they couldn't. That just tells you that thing is late, and digging," Mattingly said. "When you can't hardly hold up, it tells you it looks like a strike for a long time, then disappears."
Is this the best Kershaw has ever been?
"It's hard to say you've seen him pitch better when he hasn't given up any runs, but I've seen stretches where he's been pretty much like this every time out," said Mattingly.
Kershaw has a 1.31 ERA in his last 14 starts, with 109 strikeouts and 26 walks in 103⅓ innings. That isn't much different than his 1.22 ERA in his last 15 starts of 2011, with 110 strikeouts and 21 walks in 110⅔ innings.
But think about this. What if Kershaw, who has a 2.01 ERA in his last 50 starts, improves even more?
"With the way he works and goes about his business, he's going to get better. He's one of those guys, he's like the perfect player. He's got talent, he works hard, and he cares a lot. It's hard to say anything bad about him."