LOS ANGELES – A fastball away for a strike. The fastball that has just enough natural cut to backdoor a right-handed hitter such as Mike Trout. The fastball that, considering Clayton Kershaw is devastating on his glove-side corner, appears to a batter to be forever off the plate and a sure-thing ball and instead grazes the black. For strike one.
A curveball away for a ball. The curveball Vin Scully once formally dubbed Public Enemy No. 1. The curveball that, according to Baseball America, managers consider second only to Adam Wainwright's, against which the league is batting .143. For ball one.
A fastball in, because that's where Trout can be vulnerable, because that's where Kershaw loves to pitch, hard at 93, cutting toward the bat handle and the right thumb. For a ground ball to the left side, hard with some top spin, three steps and a dive to Juan Uribe's left.
Kershaw turned to watch over his right shoulder. Trout burst from the box, low like a sprinter chasing the gun, broad like a linebacker hunting a tailback. "As big as he is," Vin Scully oozed from overhead, "he has wings on his feet."
The ball and the foot arrived within a replay frame of one another, one way or another, and the umpire believed the foot, and the people moaned, because this was important, our best against their best, what one player wryly referred to as Southern California baseball's "West Side Story moment."
Yeah, Kershaw vs. Trout, for the first time in a regulation game. The undisputed best pitcher against the consensus best player at 20-ish paces, an entire stadium leaning in to witness it, the result an infield single.
Which settled … nothing, really.
But it is what baseball is best at, which is to take a rather ordinary game on a midsummer Tuesday night, crowd 53,000 people around it, put Vin Scully on the mic, feather in some organ music, stand their guy against our guy and make an event of three pitches.
Or one pitch – a fastball – which Trout scalded into the left-field corner in the third inning for a double.
Or three again – fastball in, fastball away, fastball away, all at precisely 94 miles per hour, all on the extremes of the strike zone, all taken for strikes – to whiff a head-shaking Trout in the fifth inning.
Seven pitches in all, it was theater. In the end, no blood. Trout got his hacks. Kershaw got his revenge. And what should we expect?
A few feet from one, 60 from the other, Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said yes, it was interesting, and, yes, the thought crossed his mind that here were two young men on what he called "Hall of Fame trajectories" measuring each other not for what they are becoming but for one single pitch in one single moment. Trout had surprised them in the third inning. Into that at-bat, he'd swung at 19 first pitches in 417 at-bats. Face Mike Trout, strike one awaits. You're on your own from there. On that first-pitch in the third, he'd jumped that fastball.
"I liked it better," Ellis said, "when he struck out than when he was hitting bullets into the left-field corner."
Trout, homegrown, is who the Angels are. He'll be 23 on Thursday. He has twice been an MVP runner-up. With still a couple months before this season's votes are cast, the American League's award is his to lose. On game days, he is the best player on the field. And he is under contract through 2020.
Kershaw, homegrown, is who the Dodgers are. He is 26. Twice a Cy Young Award winner, he is again the front-runner. Pick a number – 2.52 is the lowest career ERA since 1920; .210 is baseball's lowest batting average against since his 2008 debut; 0 is his losses since May. Every fifth day, he is the best pitcher on the field. More, he is the toughest man on the field. And he is under contract through 2020.
So, in a year that has seen the Angels appear to put some distance between themselves and four crummy seasons, Trout's stature, by virtue of winning, grows. And Kershaw, by virtue of stacking winning seasons upon winning seasons, by pushing the Dodgers again, simply becomes more.
"I'm not going to talk about individual at-bats," Kershaw said. "He's a great hitter. He got two hits. Tip your cap."
You see, the toughness – the stubbornness – does not come off with the uniform.
Here's another thing baseball does – it builds all day to something like Kershaw vs. Trout, and then the end has very little to do with either. Albert Pujols hit the eighth-inning home run off Brian Wilson to tie the score. Ellis delivered the run-and-hit single in the ninth that set up a game-winning ground ball by Andre Ethier off Kevin Jepsen.
Kershaw left and a new pitcher came in and there was still a game to be won. Or lost. Trout finished his at-bat and Pujols came to the plate. It'll never be about two guys as much as it will be about the other 16. So, nothing gets settled ever, and certainly not in August, because there'll always be another pitch to throw, another fastball to jump. Or not.
But it has to start somewhere.
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