When Clayton Kershaw took the mound Friday night, the typically regimented rotation of his world was suddenly spinning upside down.
Off the field, the 35-year-old was under an unusually intense spotlight, thrusting himself into the middle of the Dodgers recent Pride Night controversy after publicly disagreeing with the team’s decision to honor the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — and pushing for the club’s relaunch of Christian Faith and Family Day — earlier in the week.
On the field, the three-time Cy Young Award winner wasn’t in a great space either.
May had been one of the worst months of the left-hander’s career, when he posted a 5.55 ERA in five short starts (he pitched past the fifth inning only once). His command had disappeared, as well, leading to a bevy of walks and a barrage of questions about the pitcher’s uncharacteristic form.
“No one expects more from himself than Clayton, and especially the bar that he’s set for himself,” manager Dave Roberts said Friday afternoon, hours before first pitch. “Command is what made him great. So to see three or four outings where the command hasn’t been what it is, I think that’s frustrating for him.”
Ever the optimist, though, Roberts then added a prediction.
“My bet,” he said, “is that it’s gonna be cleaned up.”
Indeed it was in the Dodgers’ 8-4 win over the New York Yankees at Dodger Stadium.
While the offense provided an early boom, breaking out for a six-run first inning against Luis Severino that looked more like batting practice, it was Kershaw who guided the club the rest of the night.
He pitched seven strong innings, giving up just two runs on four hits.
He pounded the zone, striking out nine batters and throwing just 31 balls in 96 pitches.
And he performed more like his typical self, the one who padded his already Hall of Fame-caliber credentials by winning National League pitcher of the month in April — before his slide through an inconsistent May.
Kershaw’s week started with some highly scrutinized comments he made on Monday.
In an interview with The Times, Kershaw publicly explained his disagreement with honoring the Sisters, saying he felt the drag group was “making fun of other people’s religions” through their satirical portrayals of nuns and other Christian imagery.
In the four days since, Kershaw’s comments led to backlash from some but also made him one of several players and politicians who criticized the Dodgers’ decision to honor the LGBTQ+ support group during their Pride Night later this month.
Whatever impact it had on the pitcher leading up to his start, however, it wasn’t evident once he took the mound to a chorus of applause.
After giving up a single on his first pitch, Kershaw induced a double play from Aaron Judge before striking out Anthony Rizzo on three straight strikes.
The offense spotted him a lead soon after.
Mookie Betts hit a leadoff home run, one of his two long balls in a four-hit game. Max Muncy added a two-run blast. And by the time the six-run, eight-hit, 11-batter inning ended, Kershaw was able to switch into cruise control over the rest of his bounce-back outing.
He gave up long solo home runs to Josh Donaldson in the second and Giancarlo Stanton in the fourth. But he also yielded only one single and one walk over his final six innings.
He mixed his slider and curveball well, inducing 13 total swinging strikes.
When he left the mound for the last time, a season-high crowd of 52,534 rose to his feet.
Kershaw’s trademark dominance had returned.
And the Dodgers could use more similar performances in the coming weeks.
The team is still starting two rookie pitchers in Michael Grove and Bobby Miller, who will start Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
It means Kershaw, in addition to right-hander Tony Gonsolin, will have to help carry the load in the short-term — the same way he has for much of his career as the Dodgers’ ace.
“The guy [has] done it for so many years,” Roberts said. “That’s somebody that, when he takes the mound, you expect to win.”
In May, such a statement was starting to look untrue.
But on Friday, despite his recent struggles and self-made controversy, the old Kershaw returned.
Roberts confirmed Noah Syndergaard’s next start, despite the pitcher’s poor performance in his last two outings (11 earned runs in 11 total innings) and ugly numbers on the season overall.
Roberts said the team evaluated its other options, looked at Syndergaard’s season — his first with the club after signing a $13-million deal this offseason — and decided to stick with him for now.
“We’re just trying to continue to bet on him,” Roberts said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.