Coming off a 2014 National League MVP Award and third career Cy Young, Clayton Kershaw faced insurmountable expectations heading into the 2015 season.
Already widely regarded as one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball history, the assumption held Kershaw would somehow build on and surpass the bar set during his MVP campaign.
After his June 27 start in which he allowed three runs (one earned) over seven innings in a loss to the Miami Marlins, Kershaw was 5-6 with a 3.20 ERA.
Questions as to what was “wrong” with Kershaw continued to linger, despite advanced stats pointing to the southpaw largely being a victim of bad luck.
Two starts later, in his final outing before the All-Star Game, Kershaw tossed a complete-game shutout while setting a season-high with 13 strikeouts.
He followed that up by spinning his curveball, slider and fastball at will, collecting 14 strikeouts and allowing just three hits over eight shutout innings against the Washington Nationals on Sunday.
Among those unable to solve Kershaw was Nationals right fielder and 2015 NL MVP candidate Bryce Harper, who went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts. Following an afternoon of frustration, Harper spoke highly of Kershaw, via Jacob Emert and Bill Landson of MLB.com:
“He went out there like the MVP that he is,” Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper said about Kershaw. “He was pretty devastating. We tried to go in there and did what we could. I think he is the best pitcher in baseball. He is pretty tough.”
For his part, Kershaw was mindful of the threat Harper poses and focused on keeping him off the bases:
“He’s the guy in their lineup, obviously,” Kershaw said about Harper. “You saw it out there in the ninth inning. It takes one swing for him. I was just trying not to give up a hit.”
Harper entered Sunday’s game a lifetime 1-for-6 against Kershaw, with one home run and three strikeouts. His first-inning at-bat ended with him fooled on a curveball low and away.
Harper then wasn’t able to check his swing and went down on another curve, this time bounced in the dirt in the fourth inning. His third strikeout came by way of being unable to catch up to fastball in the sixth.
Finishing the day 1-for-4 with two RBIs, Harper’s lone hit was a two-run homer off Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning that cut the Dodgers’ lead to 4-2, which held as the final score.
If there’s any solace to be taken for Harper, Kershaw did much of the same to his Nationals teammates. The reigning MVP struck out at least two batters in each of the first seven innings.
According to ESPN Stats and Info, Kershaw is the first pitcher in 100 years to post consecutive starts with at least 10 strikeouts, zero runs allowed and zero walks.
Moreover, Dating back to May 26 when he tossed seven scoreless innings against the Atlanta Braves, Kershaw owns a 1.36 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and 101 strikeouts over 10 starts (71.2 innings), good for an average of 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings.
In three July starts Kershaw has allowed just one run in 24 innings (0.42 ERA), struck out 34 and issued only two walks.