Dodgers shake off struggles, regain share of NL West lead

LOS ANGELES — Three weeks ago, it would have been reasonable to wonder if the Dodgers were spiraling into the dreaded June swoon. They were a frightening 9½ games out of first place in the National League West and losing ground almost daily, a good time to panic.

But if there’s anything they’ve proven the past two seasons, it’s that gaping deficits don’t bother them — certainly not in June.

They’ve been through this before, so the fact they beat the St. Louis Cardinals 6-0 on Sunday at Dodger Stadium and erased a 9½-game gap in the NL West in just 21 days seems matter of fact.

It’s not, but suddenly the Dodgers look a lot like the same team that went on a 42-8 streak last season to storm back from that same deficit and win the West by 11 games.

Sunday’s win, their 12th in 16 games, moved them into a first-place tie with the Giants, the first time they’ve had a share of the lead since April 24.

 "We’re tied. We’re not in first place yet by ourselves," first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. "There’s still a lot of work to be done. The Giants are not going to give up. We all know there’s still a half a season left, so we’ve just got to continue to play the type of baseball we’re playing."

Understandably, it starts with their pitching. Clayton Kershaw pitched seven shutout innings, struck out 13 and completed June with a 6-0 record and a 0.82 ERA, extending his streak of scoreless innings to 28.

That’s the longest scoreless stretch of Kershaw’s career without allowing a run and the longest by a Dodgers pitcher since Orel Hershiser’s record 59-inning scoreless stretch in 1988. Only Hershiser, Don Drysdale (58), Don Sutton (35) and Sandy Koufax (33) have had longer streaks without permitting a run.

"He wasn’t too bad today, huh?" manager Don Mattingly said.

The fact is, the Dodgers have come to expect these kinds of outings from Kershaw, who is steady and commanding virtually every time he pitches. He doesn’t offer much of an explanation for his hot stretch, simply shrugging off questions and talking about the team instead.

But Mattingly said, "The hard thing with Clayton is we’ve been seeing this for a while now, and every year it seems similar. Obviously, there’s stretches where he’s over-the-top good, but every year there’s been numerous games where he’s gone out and done this. It’s hard to feel like this is so much different than the others, but it’s not really. It seems the same."

How could it feel otherwise? Kershaw had nine strikeouts through five innings, didn’t allow more than one hit in any inning and issued just two walks. Dodgers starting pitchers now have gone 33 games in a row walking two or fewer batters, the longest such streak in the National League since at least 1914.

The Dodgers got a three-run homer from Andre Ethier in the fifth, but they really took control of the game in the fourth, when Yasiel Puig worked a walk after starting 0 and 2 against Cardinals starter Shelby Miller, and Gonzalez bunted for a hit on the left side against an infield shift.

"I’ve been trying to bunt for a while," the slow-footed Gonzalez said. "I’ve been squaring up a lot. I’m not faking it. I’ve been looking for a pitch I can bunt. I just haven’t gotten a good pitch."

His hit set up a run-scoring single by Matt Kemp, and he later scored on a sacrifice fly by Juan Uribe.

The Dodgers are grinding their way to victories, winning five series in a row, but they also know their pitching is keeping them in most games, and that’s a good feeling.

"We were good even when we were struggling," Kemp said. "Some of us struggled a little bit, (but) we’re all getting on the same page and we’re playing together as a team and making it happen. Our pitching has been lights out."

Certainly, Kershaw was on Sunday.