Braves to face Kershaw (with big K) on a mighty roll

LOS ANGELES – When the Braves and fill-in starter Bud Norris go up against the Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw on Saturday night, they will be facing a pitcher in full, a left-hander coming off one of the most dominant, masterful months in major league history.

A pitcher who, two months into the season, is displaying the most uncanny control of any pitcher. Ever.

Clayton Kershaw enters Saturday night's start against the Braves on an historic pace with 105 strikeouts and only five walks this season. (AP photo)

Clayton Kershaw enters Saturday night’s start against the Braves on an historic pace with 105 strikeouts and only five walks this season. (AP photo)

Kershaw became the first pitcher this season to reach 100 strikeouts in his last start Sunday, and he has 105 with five walks entering Saturday night’s game against the Braves. That’s not a typo. He has 105 strikeouts with five walks in 86 2/3 innings, to go with his 7-1 record, 1.56 ERA and .169 opponents’ average.

Kershaw hasn’t walked more than one batter in a game all season, and has no walks in six of his starts.

He was, of course, named NL Pitcher or the Month in May after going 5-0 with a majors-leading 0.91 ERA and three complete-game shutouts in six starts, while totaling 65 strikeouts and two walks in 49 2/3 innings – according to Elias Sports Bureau, the fewest walks ever for a pitcher who had that many strikeouts in any six-start span.

“He’s fun to watch,” said Braves pitcher Matt Wisler, who’ll watch Kershaw Saturday before Wisler starts Sunday’s series finale. “He goes out there and it’s like a robot. You know what you’re going to get. He’s averaging eight innings a start. It’s impressive to see what he’s doing — he’s making big league hitters look foolish every time out.”

Kershaw doesn’t just lead the majors with a stunning strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 21 (105/5), he’s lapped the field. He’s more than twice as high as the second-best ratio, Noah Syndergaard’s also-terrific 9 (90/10).

For some perspective of what Kershaw is doing, consider that the great Greg Maddux’s best strikeouts-to-walks ratio was 8.85, which Maddux recorded when he had 177 strikeouts with 20 walks in 232 2/3 innings with the Braves in 1997, a Cy Young runner-up season two years after he won his fourth consecutive Cy Young Award.

In his four Cy-winning seasons, Maddux’s strikeouts-to-walks ratio ranged from 6.6 to 7.8.

To repeat, Kershaw is currently at 21. He has 105 strikeouts and five walks with two-thirds of the season remaining.

The highest ratio for any pitcher with at least 100 strikeouts in a season belongs to the Twins’ Phil Hughes, who had an 11.6 ratio in 2014 when he totaled 186 strikeouts with 16 walks in 209 2/3 innings. But he also gave up 221 hits.

Kershaw has allowed 51 hits in 86 2/3 innings, including just four homers.  His .180 opponents’ slugging percentage is 58 points better than the next-lowest among major league starters, White Sox ace Chris Sale’s .238. Second-best in the NL is a tie between the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta (.240) and Philly’s Aaron Nola (.240).

(By the way, the Braves’ Wisler (.265) is eighth in the NL, and Julio Teheran (.272) is 10th after giving up three homers Friday in a 4-2 loss to the Dodgers.

We’re seeing dominance on a level we’ve seldom seen in our lifetimes. Consider Kershaw’s past 34 starts since the beginning of June: 20-5 with 1.49 ERA and .172 opponents’ average, with 323 strikeouts and 31 walks in 254 innings.

In his past 29 starts, it’s a 1.35 ERA with 275 strikeouts and 22 walks in 219 1/3 innings.

In his career against the Braves, Kershaw is 3-0 with a 1.49 ERA in nine starts – seven regular-season, two in 2013 division series — with 82 strikeouts, 15 walks and one homer allowed in 66 1/3 innings.

Braves interim manager Brian Snitker, who was third-base coach under Bobby Cox, has seen Kershaw’s development into one of the game’s dominant forces. “Watching from afar all these years, it’s just like, man, this is what they look like,” Snitker said. “You just admire and respect everything he does.”

Left-handed batters are hitting .136 (9-for-66) against Kershaw with no homers, two walks, 29 strikeouts and a .162 OBP and .182 slugging percentage. Righties are 42-for-236 (.178) with four homers, three walks, 76 strikeouts and a .192 OBP and .267 slugging.

With runners in scoring position and two outs, hitters are 1-for-18 with no walks and nine strikeouts. In close-and-late situations, they’ve batted .111 (5-for-45) with one walk and 16 strikeouts. With two strikes, hitters are 19-for-179 (.106) with two walks and 105 strikeouts.

Utter, unmitigated dominance.

But it wasn’t always this way. Kershaw came into the league like so many other future Hall of Famers, as a very good, hard-throwing pitcher who still had plenty to learn and took plenty of lumps along the way.

He was 5-5 with a 4.26 ERA in 22 games (21 starts) as a Dodgers rookie in 2008, with 100 strikeouts, 52 walks and 11 homers allowed in 107 2/3 innings. The next season in 2009, he had a much-improved 2.79 ERA in 31 games (30 starts), but still had almost half as many walks (91) as strikeouts (185) in 171 innings.

There was more progress in his third season in 2010, when Kershaw posted a 2.91 ERA in 32 starts, with 212 strikeouts and 81 walks in 204 innings.

But it was the next season when Kershaw took things to a whole different level. In 2011, he went 21-5 with a league-leading 2.28 ERA and a league-leading 248 strikeouts (54 walks) in 233 1/3 innings, and Kershaw won the first of his three Cy Young Awards in a four-year span.

So what happened between 2010 and 2011, how did he make such dramatic improvement?

Braves veteran Kelly Johnson remembers it well, having seen Kershaw break into the league with a high-90s fastball and a big “12-to-6” curveball, but little else in the way of pitch diversity.

“When he came up he threw as hard as anybody, and left-handed,” Johnson said. “And he had the big curveball. And I think someone must have told him, because as a hitter it was nice that everything was either 95-97, or it was 70-something. It was kind of nice. Then in 2011 spring training, we play at Salt River (the Dodgers’ spring-training site in Arizona) when I was with the Diamondbacks, and Stephen Drew and I were only two lefties in the lineup, and we both go up there, miss a heater, miss something, miss something. And I’m like, what’s going on? What was that pitch? And I didn’t say anything, and Stephen does the same thing and struck out. He’s throwing like a cutter-slider now instead of curveball. Cannot see it. Can’t see the difference between the fastball and slider, at all.

“And to me, he was already unbelievable, and that’s when he took off (and got even better).”

Kershaw wasn’t done improving. Not hardly. He’s still just 28. In 2014 he had 21 wins, a career-low 1.77 ERA and a career-high 7.7 strikeouts-to-walks ratio.

Last season he had a league-leading, career-high 301 strikeouts and 42 walks in a league-leading 232 1/3 innings. And now he’s on pace to set more records, personal and otherwise.

“Of course now he’s gotten older and smarter, he’s got confidence, and I mean he’s just a freak,” Johnson said. “I don’t know him personally, I just watch him like everyone else. But I think he’s obviously got something that other people don’t have inside of him. I know some guys who’ve already seen him (Friday) and he’s already talking about how he remembers that we got 10 hits off of him. (The Braves got 10 hits in 8 1/3 innings against Kershaw on April 21, though only one run and one walk. He had 10 strikeouts.)

“And it’s like, oh, great, he remembers that? That’s driving him,” Johnson said, smiling. “For all the greatness he’s got, he’s already thinking about how the Atlanta Braves got 10 hits off of him last time and he’s got to figure it out.”

Johnson says Kershaw has not just the drive and ambition to be the best, but at 6 feet 4 and 230 pounds, the physical requirements to do it.

“He’s a grown man, he’s put together, he’s a moose,” Johnson said. “And guys like that that are built that way and, it’s like Chipper — they’re just born to play baseball. What are you going to do? You go up and battle and try to get 10 hits and piece it together, and hope your pitcher matches him and it takes one to knock him out of the game. It’s just tough to beat that guy.”

For the record, among Braves against Kershaw, Freddie Freeman is 3-for-12 with a homer off the lefty, Kelly  Johnson is 3-for-15 with a homer, Nick Markakis is 2-for-3 and Adonis Garcia is 2-for-4.

 

 • Norris gets assignment: We had anticipated seeing young Braves fireballer Mike Foltynewicz face Kershaw, but that changed abruptly Friday when Folty was placed on the 15-day DL for bone spurs in his pitching elbow.

And so, moving from the bullpen to make the start will be the veteran Norris, who lost his rotation spot after a brutal first month of the season but has pitched much better since moving to a relief role.

Norris went 1-4 with an 8.74 ERA and .340 opponents’ average in five starts, with 17 strikeouts, 11 walks and six homers allowed in 22 1/3 innings. This compared to a 1.96 ERA in 12 relief appearances with 14 strikeouts, nine walks and no homers allowed in 18 1/3 innings.

Lefties have hit .328 (19-for-58) against him with four homers, a .459 OBP and .603 slugging percentage, compared to .275/.318/.373 with two homers in 102 at-bats by right-handers.

Against Norris, Adrian Gonzalez is 0-for-6 with four strikeouts and Chase Utley is 2-for-12.

This is one of the many, many great tunes about L.A., a terrific solo recording from Simone Felice.

“IF YOU GO TO L.A.” by Simone Felice

Simone Felice

Simone Felice

If you go to LA
And meet a girl there with a curious name
You look her dead in the eye
And tell her I’m getting by

If you go to LA
Be sure to ask her if she’s been sleeping ok
So many furious kinds of pills
Up in them bloody hills

Lie lie lie lie
Lie lie lie lie

If you go to LA
A terrible wave comes up
Boy to wash it away
You lead her out by the hand
Pale feet on paler sand

And if you go to LA
And meet a girl out walking
In the drizzling rain
You look her straight in the eye
And tell her I’m fine doing fine with a

Lie lie lie lie
Lie lie lie lie
Lie lie lie lie
Lie lie lie lie

If you go to LA
How did we end up as strangers in these times?

If you go to LA
Oh the danger of the crowd

 


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