LOS ANGELES — The guttural roar Clayton Kershaw bellowed out after his 105th pitch Tuesday night, a slider that presented as a strike before darting just below the zone and under Tommy Pham’s bat, was less about the history he was set to make and more about the moment itself.
Kershaw was exhausted. His team, having dropped two straight games to fall under .500, needed a win. For six innings, the Dodgers’ veteran left-hander had flummoxed Mets hitters only to find himself in his biggest jam. A 13-pitch at-bat against Mark Canha ended in a single. A hit followed from Jeff McNeil. The tying run approached.
As he has throughout his decorated 16-year career, Kershaw found a way out. The 35-year-old’s ninth and final strikeout moved him into 22nd place on MLB‘s all-time leaderboard. More importantly, his seven scoreless innings ended the Dodgers’ skid and gave him his 200th career victory.
All 200 wins, of course, came for the same team.
“There’s been a lot of pitchers that have pitched well but maybe don’t have the team behind them to get those kinds of wins,” Kershaw said after the 5-0 victory. “Just reflecting on that, and just thankful for being part of great teams — that’s what wins signify to me, just looking back at all the different groups of guys I’ve gotten to play with over the years.”
The milestone called for a postgame champagne celebration in the Dodgers’ clubhouse. Freddie Freeman and Austin Barnes made a toast. Individual attention in a team sport still makes Kershaw uncomfortable, but his teammates deemed the occasion worthy.
“He’s helped so many careers without even probably knowing he has,” Barnes said. “Sometimes, you gotta let those guys know.”
While Kershaw may never be totally comfortable toasting to himself, as each year passes, as his family grows and his four kids get older, he acknowledges that he has gained a better appreciation for celebrating these types of moments.
Kershaw joined Don Sutton (233) and Don Drysdale (209) as the only Dodger pitchers to win 200 games. He also joined Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Max Scherzer as the only active pitchers to reach the plateau. He owns a better career winning percentage than any other 200-game winner in history.
“He’s done it his entire career, being the guy you look to to be the stopper, to change the momentum,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I know going into today he felt that and embraced that, so the last part, the hardest part, is to go out there and execute. I thought tonight, from start to finish, it was the best stuff he’s had from pitch one to pitch 100.”
At this point in his career, Kershaw understands what each situation requires. Sometimes, it’s early contact. Other times, he needs more.
In the first inning, when an error in right field by Jason Heyward allowed leadoff hitter Brandon Nimmo to reach third base, Kershaw reeled off three straight strikeouts — against veterans Starling Marte, Francisco Lindor and Pete Alonso — to extinguish the threat.
Kershaw continued to pepper the strike zone all night. The Mets mustered just one infield hit through the first six innings.
When they finally threatened, with the tension at its highest and the pressure at its peak, Kershaw again knew where to turn. In an era in which velocity dominates, he has persevered through precision, armed with a slider and curveball that have finished off hitters at an unmatched rate since he entered the majors in 2008.
Nursing a 3-0 lead, in a full count with two on and two out in the seventh inning, Kershaw twirled a slider that darted past Pham. He pumped his fist and yelled.
“That was a big moment,” Barnes said. “I felt that too.”
On a night that began with a tribute to Vin Scully, another all-time Dodgers great etched himself further into baseball’s history books. Kershaw departed after seven scoreless innings to a standing ovation, as 46,884 fans witnessed him check another box off his Hall of Fame resume.
“Tonight’s performance really kind of epitomized who he is as a competitor,” Roberts said. “Just overcoming a three-base error with a team that’s swinging the bats really well and to punch three, to give us that confidence, that momentum going into the bottom of the first inning, that was Clayton. He essentially put us on his back today.”
In the aftermath of his achievement, before taking the postgame podium, Kershaw’s wife, Ellen, and the two oldest of his four kids, Cali and Charley, walked into the room. Their presence demonstrated what this achievement meant to Kershaw as much as anything he could say.
After his previous outing, Ellen was trying to decide whether to stay in Los Angeles or go back to Texas to take their kids to school. Kershaw told her a 200th win wasn’t a guarantee.
She stuck around.
“You have to give credit to Ellen, she let the kids stay up late and play a little hooky from school,” Kershaw said. “It’s really, really special to have them here and be able to see it.”
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