The last time Clayton Kershaw had pitched in a regular season game, it seemed like his Dodgers tenure was coming to an imperfect end.
On Wednesday, his time with the club resumed with a resounding — and almost perfect — bang.
In his first start since re-signing with the Dodgers this winter, Kershaw pitched seven perfect innings before being taken out of the game. The Dodgers lost the combined perfect game bid an inning later, when Gary Sánchez singled against reliever Alex Vesia, but still went on to a 7-0 win against the Minnesota Twins.
In an 80-pitch season debut, Kershaw struck out 13 batters, dominated with a slider-heavy mix, and flashed vintage form after struggling with an elbow injury last year.
Barely a month ago, Dodgers coaches were unsure if Kershaw would even be able to be part of the season-opening roster. His 2021 campaign had ended days before the playoffs, after he re-aggravated the elbow injury and was forced to miss all of October.
The day he got hurt, Kershaw walked off the mound with the ball tightly in his grasp. He disappeared into the dugout as a pending free agent, uncertain if he would pitch for the Dodgers again.
He not only returned this spring, but pitched “as good as I’ve seen him from day one in spring training in all my six years with him,” manager Dave Roberts said.
And when the left-hander stepped atop the mound for the 12:10 p.m. start Wednesday, an overcast sky as gray as his road uniform hanging overhead, he looked as dominant as he ever has in his Hall of Fame career.
He pounded fastballs over to all parts of the zone, four-seamers that were slower than when he was in prime but effectively located on either side of the plate.
He spun sliders that evaded swing after swing, the pitch accounting for 11 of the 13 strikeouts he racked up during his 66th career double-digit punchout game.
For most of the afternoon, the Dodgers’ defense hardly had to work behind him. There was a routine ground ball to third baseman Justin Turner in the first inning, pop ups to first baseman Freddie Freeman and second baseman Gavin Lux in the second and third, and a couple lazy fly balls to the outfield scattered over the rest of the day.
None of the eight balls the Twins put in play against Kershaw recorded an exit velocity of at least 95 mph (MLB’s definition of a “hard-hit” baseball). And not until the end of the seventh did they truly come close to recording a hit, when Gio Urshela hit a ground ball back up the middle that somehow missed Kershaw and bounced off the mound, yet was fielded by Lux for the inning’s final out.
By that point, Roberts had already been thinking about taking Kershaw out of the game.
Kershaw had been held back until the fifth game of the season in order to have extra time to build up arm strength, but still was only stretched out to about 75 pitches after the lockout-shortened spring.
So, while the Dodgers got back-to-back-to-back home runs from Cody Bellinger, Lux and Austin Barnes in the top of the eighth, doubling the three-run lead they’d built in the first two innings Wednesday, Roberts called down to the bullpen and had Vesia begin warming up.
Kershaw seemed to know what was coming when he returned to the dugout after the seventh. After shooting a grin to Lux as he walked off the field, Kershaw bumped his teammates’ fists on the bench, then hugged catcher Austin Barnes in a short embrace.
If he was upset, he didn’t show it. The 34-year-old didn’t have a perfect game, but had still completed an almost perfect day.
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