Clayton Kershaw strikes again. After beating the Braves twice in the 2013 postseason, the Los Angeles Dodgers ace took the mound and went the distance on Thursday night, shutting down the Atlanta Braves lineup for eight innings and holding on for a 2-1 win in the ninth.
The win completes the three-game sweep for the NL West leaders and sinks the Braves’ second-half record to 6-8. Here are three observations from the game:
For the second straight night, a hyped pitching matchup lived up to its billing.
A night after Dodgers star Zack Greinke battled young Braves left-hander Alex Wood, it was Wood’s teammate, Julio Teheran, who was handed the ball and asked to go pitch-for-pitch with the best pitcher on the planet. Dueling with Clayton Kershaw is difficult enough as it is, but asking Teheran to match Kershaw while he’s in a career-best zone is nearly impossible, especially with the type of run support the Braves offense has given some of its top pitching performances this season.
Kershaw was not lights-out on Thursday night, but he was about as close as it gets to that while scattering nine hits. The three double plays he induced certainly helped. The reigning NL Cy Young winner held the Braves to just one run in yet another complete game effort (his fifth such outing, tying the highest mark of any major league team this season), striking out nine batters without allowing a single walk.
"He doesn’t rattle," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "That’s why he is what he is. He doesn’t rattle, he keeps making his pitches."
Since the beginning of June, Kershaw is 10-0 with a 0.94 ERA. And as ESPN Stats & Info pointed out, the 26-year-old has logged at least seven strikeouts and allowed three runs or fewer in each of his past 13 outings — the second-longest streak over the past century.
That was the task at hand for Julio Teheran.
After allowing a hit to each of the Dodgers first three batters, including an RBI double from Adrian Gonzalez, the wheels could have fallen off for Teheran in the first inning. One run is a mountain to climb against Kershaw. And when All-Star outfielder Yasiel Puig took him deep in the third inning, things went from bad to worse. But Teheran responded.
He held the Dodgers scoreless over the next five innings, matching Kershaw goose egg for goose egg. He allowed just one hit after the Puig homer, striking out nine batters and walking three. He’s posted nine or more strikeouts in four of his past eight outings.
"That’s two nights in a row that our starters have given us terrific outings, and usually you only give up two runs you’ve got a pretty good chance to win the ballgame," Gonzalez said. "And we didn’t these last couple (games)."
In many ways, the series in Los Angeles revealed very little. The offense scored seven runs in three games, Teheran and Wood turned in gems but did not receive proper run support and the bullpen showed some blemishes. Aside from the bullpen struggles, which have not been a major problem for this team, that’s a rough draft for the 2014 season to date for the Braves.
But as top teams jockeyed for leverage at the MLB trade deadline on Thursday afternoon, it’s difficult to not view the series sweep through the newly reconfigured league-wide lens.
In the American League, Detroit and Oakland are fighting for "Super Team of the Moment" distinction, loading up their rotations by adding Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel (Oakland) and former Cy Young winner David Price (Detroit). The Cardinals looked to shore up their rotation by adding Justin Masterson and John Lackey. Aside from those teams, the Dodgers and Nationals also feature excellent starting pitching — meaning the road to the World Series is likely going to go through the backyards of teams that can match the Braves’ pitching prowess.
There’s little shame in getting shutdown by Kershaw — every lineup suffers the same fate it seems — but the Braves have come up short far too often against top pitching this season.
Atlanta has been held to three runs or fewer in seven of their 14 games since the All-Star break. They are 1-6 in those games.
If this series underscored anything, it’s that even the Braves best-possible rotation — tossing out Teheran, Wood and Ervin Santana — may not be enough against the best teams in baseball. The Braves have a ways to go before they can re-enter that category. They’ve been a middle-of-the-pack team for the majority of the 2014 season, but they are (mercifully) still very much alive in the division race as the schedule continues to toughen up. First you have to make the postseason, but the Braves look like they’re a step below the top teams in baseball entering August.
As Gonzalez said in his postgame press conference, "I think we’re playing good baseball. (The Dodgers are) playing better baseball. I don’t know how much better we can pitch."
Emilio Bonifacio’s name was tossed around for weeks before the Braves finally took the plunge to bring Gonzalez’s former Marlins player to Atlanta, and he should be a welcome addition for a lackluster bench. Bonifacio has played six different positions in his career, has worked as an MLB leadoff hitter in his career and offers an additional pinch runner in late-inning situations. In their pregame talks with media members, both Gonzalez and general manager Frank Wren mentioned the fact that they’ll be able to use the 29-year-old in a variety of situations moving forward.
In Bonifacio, we got a really versatile bench player who can do a lot of things well," Wren told reporters in Los Angeles. "If you have injuries and need him to play a lot, he can."
And while Bonifacio is in the middle of his second-best season of his career in terms of WAR (1.6), it’s difficult to expect him to offer a legitimate full-time upgrade at any position. The Braves aren’t likely to bench third baseman Chris Johnson or any of the outfielders in favor of their newest addition, and rookie second baseman Tommy La Stella is hitting the ball better than Bonifacio has in his past three seasons.
Utility players are certainly useful. The Braves benefited greatly from having the likes of Martin Prado filling in gaps for years, Bonifacio offers similar positional versatility. There could be a series or two where he spells three different guys at three different positions — that’s something Atlanta has not had since trading Prado to Arizona.
He’s not the cure-all for the offense, though. Bonifacio is a career below-average hitter (87 weighted runs created) so to expect him to boost one of the lowest-scoring offenses around is probably unfair. He’ll bring some relief to Gonzalez on the bench — for the better part of this season he was dealt a difficult hand in that regard — but improvement in the runs column will have to come from the incumbents.