Scott Miller's Starting 9: Kershaw Can Bring 300-Strikeout Feat Back from Dead

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistSeptember 9, 2015

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw tosses the ball back to his fans before a baseball game with the Los Angeles Angels, Monday, Sept. 7, 2015, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

1. Clayton K-K-K-K-K-K…ershaw

The season's silliest moment, and it's not even close, came when the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw was not originally named to the National League All-Star team and instead was listed among the NL's final-five fan vote.

Are you kidding?

In the name of Sandy Koufax and all that is hardball holy, if Kershaw is not an automatic, no-brainer All-Star, then somebody whiffed, and whiffed badly.

So chalk up another in Clayton Kershaw's Season of Strikeouts. A swing and a miss. Right now, he's a Toro-riding mower chugging through a field of overgrown weeds.

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

"He keeps defying the odds," Dodgers outfielder Carl Crawford marvels. "Just when you thought you'd seen it all, he keeps rising above.

"We really do get spoiled."

Yes, we do. Case in point: In a season in which Kershaw is on pace to become the first pitcher to fan 300 or more hitters in a single campaign since Arizona's Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2002, Kershaw didn't even win the NL fan vote. St. Louis' Carlos Martinez did.

Kershaw was named an NL All-Star as a replacement for Max Scherzer, who became ineligible when he pitched on the Sunday before the game.

Granted, the man who won both the NL MVP and Cy Young awards last year pitched part of the first half without his Superman cape. He went a "pedestrian" 6-6 with a 2.85 ERA and a 1.024 WHIP in the first half. He also led the league with 160 strikeouts.

Now at a career-high 259, he's on pace for 300-plus, and suddenly people who have been napping on certain things this season are beginning to take notice.

His steamrolling of San Francisco last week with a 132-pitch, 15-strikeout complete game was phenomenal. And it wasn't just the strikeouts, it was his utter dominance in a key game in a pivotal series that separated the Dodgers from the Giants in the NL West race.

"That's the best I've seen him in two years," says one NL scout. "It was a masterpiece.

"He could have struck out everybody that night."

Much as you might expect Kershaw to get a rush from all of the strikeouts, he doesn't. At least, he claims he doesn't.

"You know what, strikeouts are just another out to me," he says. "It's not the most important thing. Sometimes it's good to be able to strike guys out in different situations but, honestly, getting outs as fast as possible is the most important thing.

"Keeping your pitch count down, going eight or nine innings, those are things I try and focus on as opposed to striking guys out."

Still, like tourists on Sunset Boulevard, the strikeouts are coming in waves.

And in 11 starts since July 8, Kershaw is 8-0 with a 0.93 ERA. He's racked up 112 strikeouts and walked just nine in 87 innings during those outings.

If Kershaw does finish the season with 300 punchouts, he will be the first Dodger to do so since his friend, Koufax, in 1966. Koufax produced the top four strikeout seasons in Dodgers history: 1965 (382), 1966 (317), 1963 (306) and 1961 (269).

"Anytime you get to be mentioned in the same breath as him when it's related to baseball is a huge honor," Kershaw says. "But strikeouts are just a byproduct of trying to get outs as quickly as possible."

However, in working toward getting quick outs, Kershaw's strategy changes, depending on in-game situations.

"He says that," Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis says. "He says an out is an out. He is so satisfied with getting a first-pitch weak ground ball. To him, that's the perfect out. That's what drives him.

"That said, when the hitter has two strikes and there's one out, now he's in control of the out. When the hitter has two strikes, now what's the best option of getting one of 27 outs?"

So here comes the hammer.

Part of it is that Kershaw is throwing in an era when major league hitters are striking out like never before. The rate of 7.79 whiffs per game in the NL is the second-highest ever, trailing only last year's 7.90. But that does not distort the fact that Kershaw is on pace for baseball's first 300-K season by a pitcher since 2002, or that his overwhelming dominance is all-consuming.

"It's a joke," Dodgers starter Brett Anderson says admiringly. "It's remarkable. Double digits every start.

"Being a strikeout guy early in my career, you appreciate a ground ball here and there. But with him, there's some jealousy."

And at season's end, that San Francisco start may well wind up as his signature game. His 15 strikeouts were the highest total against the Giants in a single game since Nolan Ryan fanned 16 San Francisco hitters on Sept. 9, 1987.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

"His slider was unbelievable. His fastball location was spot-on.

"He's had a couple of starts this year where it's almost a letdown if a guy puts it in play."

In last season's Cy Young/MVP summer, Kershaw set his own bar so sky-high, you can almost—almost—understand why he wasn't an automatic All-Star selection this year. But it still doesn't excuse those of us judging him on a Superman scale instead of on par with other big league hurlers.

"Expectations are great," Kershaw says. "That means people think highly of you. That's the way I look at it. People are going to have their opinions about how you're doing, which is also fine with me. It's a lot of people's jobs to do that.

"But at end of day, I care about how I view it, how Honey [pitching coach Rick Honeycutt] views it and how our team views it. That's the most important thing."

And to that degree, it's aces across the board. As usual.

2. The Mets and Operation Shutdown

Joe Skipper/Associated Press

We can joke all we want about what a young Ryan and Tom Seaver would have said when their innings-pitched odometer ran high and the threat to shut them down would have been mentioned, but it is a different game and culture today.

So when things went volcanic between Matt Harvey and the New York Mets the other day, the disbelief isn't that a powerful agent would bully the club in the best interest of his client.

And it doesn't come from the fact that Harvey sent mixed signals over a 48-hour period that provoked overwrought emotions. Yeah, he's 26, but he's still just a kid in the bruising world of MLB. (Though given his title as "New York City Bureau Chief" for the Players' Tribune, you would have thought he would have fact-checked and sourced things far better than he did.)

No, the inexplicable part of this is how Harvey and the Mets got themselves into this position, so publicly, in the first place, with less than four weeks left in the season.

Say what you want about how the Nationals handled Stephen Strasburg, but the lines were clearly drawn all season long in 2012. Everybody up to and including the Racing Presidents in Nationals Park knew that when Strasburg reached a certain point (and it turned out to be 159.1 innings pitched), the Nationals were going to pull the plug.

What's crazy about this Mets business is how it exploded on Labor Day weekend, severely damaging Harvey's reputation, potentially crippling his relationship with the club and causing the Mets to look like they were wholly unprepared for what they had to know was coming.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Harvey at first was vague regarding agent Scott Boras firmly stating, via CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, that 180 innings was the pitcher's limit for the summer. Then Harvey "authored" this piece for the Players' Tribune promising that he would be available for the playoffs. Then, finally, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson spoke Monday, and things remain vague.

The Mets opened a crucial series against the Nationals on Monday with a victory, a game that New York play-by-plan man Gary Cohen called the club's "biggest game in seven years." He was right.

Yet, all the while, Harvey was getting absolutely crushed by the New York media and Mets fans, which led into his start Tuesday against the Nats in which he was crushed for seven runs in 5.1 innings, a performance that now appears to be perhaps his final start of the season.

Harvey maintains he will pitch in the playoffs. But he still hasn't said how much or how often. Alderson indicated Monday that all of that was still being decided.

Ah, nothing like stretch-run negotiations.

3. Wake Me Up When September Ends

Sep 7, 2015; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia (14) pulls starting pitcher Nick Tropeano (35) in the fifth inning of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TOD
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Anybody who watched the Dodgers-Angels Labor Day night labor-thon knows that is more than just the title of a Green Day song.

The clubs combined to use 16 pitchers, tied for second-most ever in a nine-inning MLB game and most ever in a Dodgers-Angels game. The game took three hours and 52 minutes to play.

For all of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred's efforts to move along the pace of play, this month, as usual, is going to crush those efforts.

Thing is, there is a very easy fix that is almost universally supported by everyone this side of the players' association.

Here it is: Allow clubs to continue to call up as many minor leaguers as they wish in September. But lock rosters in at a certain number—say, 28, including five-man rotations—for each series. So each club would have to designate which 28 players are on the active roster. Then, when the next series arrives, each club could tweak its 28-man active roster.

So many managers, from the Angels' Mike Scioscia to the Braves' Fredi Gonzalez and ex-San Diego skipper Bud Black, have told me they're in favor of a rules change in that vein. It makes too much sense because, with modern-day bullpen usage being what it is, if a team stocks 14 pitchers in its bullpen, it's going to be tempted to use all of them and drag things on interminably.

During their mad dash toward the World Series in 2007, the Colorado Rockies equaled an MLB record for a nine-inning game by throwing 10 different pitchers at the San Diego Padres on Sept. 7. Every time the Padres sent a lefty to the plate, then-Colorado manager Clint Hurdle had another lefty reliever at his disposal.

This is the only game that allows its rules to be significantly altered during the stretch run. There are good reasons to allow clubs to get a look at young prospects during September, but within limits.

The rule will be discussed during upcoming bargaining sessions between the players and owners (the current basic agreement is up after the 2016 season), according to sources. It is far past time to change it.

As for Monday's Angels-Dodgers game, even some of the participants thought it was interminable:

4. Debut of the Week

Yes, Dodgers uber-prospect Corey Seager showed us he can play, with eight hits, four doubles and three walks in his first 24 plate appearances.

But manager Don Mattingly giving him the green light on a 3-0 count against Padres reliever Marc Rzepczynski and Seager responding in his MLB debut with an RBI single was only my second-favorite moment of this kid's arrival.

The best moment?

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

Before his first game, he was surrounded by maybe 15 or 20 media members in the dugout, and someone asked him whether his parents would be in attendance later that night.

"Yeah, they're actually right there making this even more awkward," Seager quipped, motioning toward his parents, who were standing just outside of the dugout, mom snapping cellphone photos of her son's first official press briefing in a Dodgers uniform.

5. A (Chicken) Pox on the Royals

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

Sure, September is back-to-school time. But you wouldn't think a kid's disease would fell an MLB club during the stretch run.

Yet in Kansas City, All-Star setup man Kelvin Herrera and outfielder Alex Rios each came down with a bout of chickenpox.

Initially uncertain about Rios' return, the club acquired Jonny Gomes from the Braves and is doing everything it can to prevent a full-fledged outbreak.

The Royals think they're good, as most people are inoculated against chickenpox, among many other things, as kids.

Quipped Gomes after the Royals ran him through their medical exam, per Dave Skretta of the Associated Press (via the Denver Post): "That was the first time I've been asked that in a physical. Normally it's, 'How's your shoulder? How's your knee?' Yeah, chickenpox. I'm good."

And people thought the biggest challenge standing between them and another World Series appearance would be the Toronto Blue Jays.

6. Weekly Power Rankings

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

1. Scott Boras: The game's most powerful agent now calling Harvey's pitches. One finger for a fastball, two for a curve, three for time to shut it down.

2. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke: Since Greinke joined the Dodgers rotation in 2013, the duo has racked up 98 wins, most of any teammates in that time, according to STATS LLC. They also rank first and second in ERA during that time (minimum 300 innings pitched), with Kershaw owning an MLB-best 1.91 ERA and Greinke second at 2.34.

3. College football: Thrilled to have you back, but some of these shoe-company-induced metallic helmets and weird-looking uniform combinations are as jarring as Bermuda shorts on the 1976 Chicago White Sox. Ugh.

4. Yoenis Cespedes: Since the Mets acquired him July 31, Cespedes, as of Wednesday, was hitting .307 (47-for-153) with nine doubles, three triples, 13 homers, 34 RBI and 32 runs scored in 35 games. Mets to Carlos Gomez: Thank you!

5. Stephen Colbert: Best late-night acquisition in New York since Billy Martin managed the Yankees.

7. Chatter

Nov 29, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Tech Red Raiders quarterback Patrick Mahomes (5) drops back to pass against the Baylor Bears during the game at AT&T Stadium. The Bears defeated the Red Raiders 48-46. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

• The Texas Tech quarterback who threw for a nation-high 425 yards and four touchdowns in the Red Raiders' 59-45 win over Sam Houston State on Saturday? Yes, Patrick Mahomes is the son of the former big league pitcher. Pat Mahomes went 42-39 with a 5.47 ERA over 308 games pitching for Minnesota (1992-96), Boston (1996-97), the Mets (1999-2000), Texas (2001), the Cubs (2002) and Pittsburgh (2003).

• The surprising Twins keep rolling, and outfielders who manager Paul Molitor and others think could be productive for a long time in Minnesota continue to settle in. Left fielder Eddie Rosario now has 15 outfield assists, just one short of the club's rookie record of 16 set by Kirby Puckett in 1984. Aaron Hicks is getting his footing in center field, and Byron Buxton is a future star.

• Seattle is cranking up its GM interview process and is set to interview former Angels GM Jerry Dipoto, according to FoxSports.com's Ken Rosenthal. Given the Mariners' parameters set by president Kevin Mather, that they don't want someone learning on the job, Kevin Towers, Jim Hendry, Dan O'Dowd and Kenny Williams should get interviews, too.

• Everything is falling into place in Toronto, including this: Marcus Stroman will make his first start of the season Saturday against the Yankees. Stroman tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee this spring and originally was thought to be lost for the season. Stroman's addition could make the Jays even stronger down the stretch and in October.

• Kris Bryant now has 23 homers. The only rookie in Cubs history with more? Billy Williams, who hit 25 in 1961.

Anonymous/Associated Press

• Love that shortstop Addison Russell last week became the first Cubs No. 9 hitter to homer twice in a game since…Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, in 1971, as the Elias Sports Bureau pointed out.

• Rest in peace, Joaquin Andujar. Will never forget him saying, "There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is, 'You Never Know.'" Still holds true today.

8. Bryce Harper Watches...and Watches...and Watches

And yet, in this game on Thursday, he walked four times, scored four runs and knocked in a run:

9. Memories

Just because, you should read this old news story:

9a. Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Week

If you read item No. 3, you knew this was coming...

"Summer has come and passed

"The innocent can never last

"Wake me up when September ends

"Ring out the bells again

"Like we did when spring began

"Wake me up when September ends"

— Green Day, "Wake Me Up When September Ends"

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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