Clayton Kershaw's wonderful comeback

Clayton Kershaw was back on a major-league mound Wednesday, and that should have been enough. He’s back for another year. He didn’t retire after all. His body hasn’t betrayed him yet, he’s still capable of getting MLB hitters out, even at age 34. It was a glorious day.

Kershaw was actually dominant Wednesday at Minnesota, and that should have been enough. Twenty-one batters faced, twenty-one batters retired. Thirteen strikeouts! The radar gun doesn’t pop like it once did, but Kershaw reminded us of peak Kershaw anyway, the guy who has three Cy Youngs on his mantle, an MVP, five ERA titles, three strikeout titles. For a chunk of baseball fans, Kershaw is the answer given when asked “Who’s the best pitcher you ever saw?”

Clayton Kershaw's masterful start became mired in debate

Of course, Kershaw’s Wednesday gem couldn’t stand on its own. It became the opening of a day-long debate into pitch counts and pitcher handling and collateral damage of the lockout and Dave Roberts and modern baseball strategy and 100 other things.

Perfect games are glorious things in baseball, and they’re especially rare. There’s been just 23 of them. Two of them predate the 1900s, when the rules of baseball were so different, we wouldn’t recognize the game today. Seven of them came before the moon landing. If we loosely define the Rotisserie Baseball Era as 1980-today, we’ve had 14 perfect games in that period.

Strangely, there were three of them in 2012, and there hasn’t been one since.

So when Kershaw mowed down 21 Twins in a row Wednesday, it was thrilling. We had a chance to see baseball history, and portable baseball history — the type of greatness that is accessible to fans of every sophistication level. A perfect game isn’t some contrived trivia made from three or four coincidences that you otherwise wouldn't notice. It’s a feat of greatness that everyone can absorb.

And yet, Kershaw leaving the game after seven innings made sense. The game was played in cold weather — it was 38 degrees at the start. Kershaw didn’t throw much during the truncated spring training, and his Wednesday pitch count was at 80, a sizable number for a first turn.

Oct 17, 2021; Cumberland, Georgia, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw talks in the dugout during the third inning against the Atlanta Braves in game two of the 2021 NLCS at Truist Park. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
It might be our last year to appreciate Clayton Kershaw on a baseball mound. Let's take advantage of it. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

Heck, Kershaw hardly threw at all in the offseason — at one point he took three months off, resting his body and specifically his elbow. Retirement looked like a logical consideration for Kershaw all winter. It was a pleasant surprise when he re-signed with the Dodgers in March. It’s a one-year deal, remember. This could be his last dance.

I was disappointed when Kershaw left the game, but I try to be reasonable. I understand what’s at play. Roberts needs to think long-term and be mindful of his pitcher’s health. Kershaw said all the right things after the game, not that it qualifies as breaking news. He’s a classy guy, he’s not going to undermine his manager. I suspect Kershaw is fine with the pull, but even if he wasn’t, he’s not the type of guy to go off on a rant.

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And yet, you can’t help but wonder how much joy we trade with the optimization of baseball. Fewer managers are beholden to the win and the save when they make their pitching decisions, and that should be progress, right? But it’s still pesky when a pitcher leaves with history on the table. It’s still a little odd when Triston McKenzie dominates for four innings (3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 6 K), then heads to the showers.

We’re still having the same old debates about Blake Snell and the 2020 World Series. Were the Rays out of their minds to remove Snell in the middle of the sixth, after he had toyed with the Dodgers twice through the order? Or did Tampa Bay do a shrewd thing, removing its starter before he had to make that perilous third trip through the lineup? Should the Rays have been mindful that reliever Nick Anderson was on fumes, working through a messy World Series? Or were they justified to consider Anderson a wipeout option, as he had been most of the year?

Sometimes there are no obvious answers. And sometimes there are no right answers.

The Dodgers lost the perfect game in the eighth inning Wednesday, though it feels like a footnote. Off the top of my head, I don’t remember the reliever or the hit. But I’ll remember Kershaw’s gem. And I’ll always remember what it felt like to watch Kershaw at peak, especially at home, Vin Scully on the call, palm trees in the background. Some memories are indelible.

I don’t have Kershaw on any fantasy rosters. It doesn’t matter. I’m not a Dodgers fan or a Dodgers hater, though I do have one good friend who loves the Dodgers. We’ll swap notes about the team all year. Kershaw’s average fastball didn’t even make it to 90 mph Wednesday, and I suppose that might be more feature than bug. These are his artist years. These are appreciation times. This is a gravy season. I’m going to try to appreciate it. Beauty's where you find it.

On Wednesday afternoon, Clayton Kershaw was brilliant. That's more than enough for me.