I’d like you to join me, if you will, for a moment in time five years ago today.
A sublime moment, right on the verge of…well, everything.
It’s 7:10 PM on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, at Dodger Stadium. Three days before the Summer Solstice, a midweek contest against the sub-.500 Colorado Rockies for which 46,069 will pass through the turnstiles to bear witness. It’s 71° fahrenheit, the most idyllic baseball weather you can ask for. The Dodgers, sitting at 40-34, are 4.5 games behind the Giants for first place in the NL West. But these are the same guys who rattled off 42-8 the year before, and another hot run will soon erase that deficit.
The highlight of the year so far is Josh Beckett’s no-hitter in May, the first for the Dodgers in 18 years. But that was in Philadelphia, meaning fans haven’t seen a Dodger pitcher weave a no-no at Chavez Ravine since Ramon Martinez sunk the Marlins on July 14, 1995. That’s almost two whole decades. It sure would be nice to change that, wouldn’t it?
In the bigger picture, Los Angeles is right on the verge of transformation as a franchise. The odometer officially sits at a quarter-century since the last championship, and the Guggenheim ownership is investing an unprecedented sum in the hopes of ending that. The team’s cumulative price tag is $246,367,142, the highest in Major League Baseball. Andrew Friedman’s analytics brigade won’t take over the front office until October, so this team is still a Ned Colletti organism in every way.
Which is to say, it’s a team loaded with talent. But that excess of talent has its caveats. The roster is somewhat cluttered, with too many outfielders and an overpriced (and ineffective) bullpen. More corrosively, there’s too many egos, making for a toxic clubhouse that manager Don Mattingly is struggling to keep under control.
Fortunately, one thing untouched by clubhouse drama is that we still have the voice of Vin Scully warmly serenading every moment. Next month, he’ll announce his return to the booth in 2015, ensuring we won’t have to say goodbye until 2016. That’s another perfect moment beyond duplication, but we’ll talk about it another time.
For this writer, it’s a moment right on the precipice of life itself. Just four days removed from graduating UC Davis as a history major, it’s time to live like never before. Flush with graduation money and a lot of time on my hands, I’m ready for a summer of playing Team Fortress 2 too much, watching Game of Thrones, cooling off at the movies with Guardians of the Galaxy and RiffTrax, and going to Oakland A’s and Sacramento River Cats games with friends and family. Bruce Cockburn’s elegiac 1984 album Stealing Fire and Bear Hands’ idiosyncratic indie rock LP Distraction will dominate my summer playlist.
More importantly, I’ve started as an intern for the Sacramento County Historical Society, who hired me to write a book about the history of baseball in Sacramento. The video game website I created with my friends, Last Token Gaming, turned one year old the day I graduated. When I’m not busy writing about baseball, I’ll be writing about video games. My future as a writer (which will one day lead me here) is truly coming into focus.
But the Dodgers, my passion for them renewed in my first dream summer of 2013, shall be the thread that truly ties all of this together. It wouldn’t be the same without them. I’ve lived and died with every game so far, the most I have with a baseball team since the Minnesota Twins’ inaugural year at Target Field in 2010. At a time when I’m sprung into the real world and chasing my dreams, I’m ready to live the dream of seeing a team I love win the World Series.
But in this moment on a perfect June night, all that matters is that it’s another chance to appreciate the growing spectacle of Clayton Edward Kershaw. It’s trite to simply say he’s the best pitcher in the game. We’ve known that for awhile, as he’s already won two Cy Young Awards in the last three years. We know that he doesn’t just pitch well; he pitches with nonpareil grace. That glorious stretch, the high knee raise, the stride that eclipses the pitcher’s mound, the curveball that makes the sturdiest of hitters give up…his pitching technique is what baseball fans and scribes alike live for.
In 2014, however, it’s insulting to just call him great. He is transcendent, magisterial, godlike. And the craziest part is we haven’t even seen the best of him yet. Going into tonight’s game, the GOAT stands at 6-2 with a 2.93 ERA on the season. He’s victimized 71 batters for a strikeout while issuing just eight walks. Having started the season on the injured list, though, there’s much left to accomplish. He can do even better than he has so far in his career. It’s time to kick off the summer with a pitching masterpiece.
The first victim of the night is left fielder Corey Dickerson, who strikes out looking on a high curveball. Brandon Barnes is retired on a flyout to centerfielder Scott Van Slyke, followed by Troy Tulowtizki quietly grounding out to second baseman Dee Gordon. An easy 1-2-3, as expected in any inning Kershaw takes the mound.
Fortunately, the Dodgers bats do not go as quickly in the bottom half of the first. The expeditious Gordon leads off with a walk and steals second, followed by a walk to Hanley Ramirez. They’ll come home respectively on a Yasiel Puig sacrifice fly and Matt Kemp RBI single to center. Kershaw now has a 2-0 lead to work with, and work with it he will.
Inning 2 starts with a strikeout looking of Wilin Rosario, on an arching slow curve that prompts Scully to say, “Oh, that’s not fair!” Drew Stubbs goes down swinging right after, and then Josh Rutledge is retired on a grounder to Gordon. Six up, six down so far, half of them on strikeouts. Inning 3 is much the same, starting with Kyle Parker flailing on a 2-2 fastball. DJ LeMahieu chases a pitch down and away for another strikeout. Opposing pitcher Jorge De La Rosa softly lines out to rookie third baseman Miguel Rojas.
The bats explode off De La Rosa in the bottom of the third courtesy of three RBI doubles. Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp go back-to-back for the first two, unsurprising as they’re likely the two best bats in L.A. But the third RBI double is truly unexpected: an off-the-wall hit from Rojas that scores three. The 25-year-old Venezuelan, just 10 days removed from his first MLB hit, will finish the year with a .181 average and 9 RBI. He just accounted for 3 of them in a single inning. The weirdest part: that won’t even be the biggest highlight of the game for Rojas. How? You’ll see.
It’s now 7-0 Dodgers. Kershaw’s the kind of pitcher who makes 1-0 feel like a blowout, so a win is essentially locked up as the fourth inning commences. The second time through the lineup starts with Dickerson nubbing a slow roller that threatens to be a cheap infield hit. But Kershaw is as much an athlete as he is a pitcher, fielding it and spinning around to get the out at first. Barnes is blown away for a K on three pitches, and Tulowitzki is gone even quicker on a flyout to Kemp in left field.
An RBI single from Adrian Gonzalez in the bottom half makes it 8-0, and Kershaw responds in the fifth with another 1-2-3. A strikeout of Rosario, followed by groundouts by Stubbs and Rutledge. The former is fielded by shortstop Hanley Ramirez (who will also have, in a way, a big play later), and the latter is a chopper back to Kershaw.
Now it’s time to start saying it out loud: Clayton Kershaw has a no-hitter going. Not just that, but a perfect game as well. 15 Rockies have come up so far, and none have reached base. Seven have been struck out. As Scully notes, not even one ball has been hit really hard.
The sixth inning sends the stirring anticipation in the stands into a full-blown roar. Parker is annihilated on an offspeed breaking ball. LeMahieu chases just as fruitlessly at a signature curveball, which bounces a bit in the dirt before being scooped up and thrown to first by Kersh’s best bud catcher, A.J. Ellis. Pinch-hitter Ryan Wheeler steps up in lieu of the pitcher’s spot, but he is no match for a Kershaw breaking pitch either. Then again, who is?
18 up, 18 down. 10 strikeouts. As the crowd cheers louder, Scully’s voice is noticeably getting more excited too. History is nine consecutive outs away. There are echoes of another perfect night at Dodger Stadium. Well, technically, the only perfect night in the entire history of the franchise: September 9, 1965, when Sandy Koufax threw a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs. The game that SABR deemed the greatest ever pitched in 1995. It is (along with Matt Cain’s perfecto in 2012) statistically the most dominant perfect game as well.
It just feels like destiny. Kershaw and Koufax’s monikers have become symbiotic in recent times. They’re overpowering lefty aces whose humble demeanors bely their incendiary competitive nature. Their surnames begin with K, the stat that proliferates across the scoreboard in every start they undertake. Of the 23 perfect games in MLB history, Koufax is the only Dodger to own one. And now Kershaw will join him with the 24th.
But the fickle thing about destiny in baseball is that it can be undone in a single moment. You can’t just run out the clock, or call a timeout. You have to execute every individual moment necessary. It’s a lot harder than it looks. Nothing proves that reality more than a perfect game. It’s not just the pitcher who has to be perfect, but the offense and defense behind him as well. That’s why there’s only been 23 of them so far.
That harsh reality reasserts itself to being the seventh inning. The lineup restarts with Dickerson once again, who manages a weak ground ball to short. Yet it’s still playable for Hanley Ramirez, who gets it well in time to make the throw. But that throw is an errant one, sailing past Gonzalez and allowing Dickerson to reach second. The crowd quickly silences as if it were a go-ahead home run.
And why wouldn’t they? Our hero was this close to a perfect game, and now it’s gone because of an error most shortstops probably don’t make. It’s unforgivable. Yet Kershaw, ever the class act, gives his teammate an appreciative tap for making the effort. There is still a no-hitter to finish, and it’s back to work. Barnes is rung up for strikeout #11, getting the first out of the inning.
Next up is Tulowitzki, always a dangerous hitter. He slaps one down the left field line that looks like it’ll bounce away for a hit. But Miguel Rojas, who already improbably put the game out of reach with his bat, will have none of it. He charges and snares it cleanly, carrying over just a bit into foul territory. But that means he has to make a perfect throw to get Tulo in time at first. We’ve already lost the perfecto…now we might lose the no-no altogether.
We don’t. Rojas fires a laser that needs just one bounce, scooped up cleanly by Gonzalez at first, for the out. Before the year of 2014 is over, Rojas will be traded to Miami. But with this one play, his place in Dodger lore is cemented.
The energy is back in Dodger Stadium, and Kershaw ends the seventh inning by dunking on Rosario with a curve looking. That makes 12 strikeouts. An even filthier curve gets Stubbs swinging to start the eighth. That’s lucky number 13, tying his single-game career high, just as the camera fixates on the love of Kershaw’s life, Ellen. She was his high school sweetheart, and has been his wife of four years. Both their lives will change with the arrival of their first child in a few months. Right now, clad in a yellow sweater and clapping nervously in her seat with each moment, all she cares about is her man making history.
The action continues with another slow breaking ball that blows away Josh Rutledge. 14 strikeouts, a career-high. Kyle Parker at least makes contact…for an easy play at first that Gonzalez easily gets on one hop. Kershaw, usually not one to show much emotion in the heat of the moment, lets out a discernible sigh of relief. He’s now just three outs away. Cut back to Ellen, now standing and applauding. Vinny, ever the romantic, words it oh so perfectly: “And amongst the large crowd, the biiiig heart of his wife Ellen beats a little faster.”
No doubt, nobody’s heart could be racing more than hers. Still, every Dodger fan in the world is living and dying almost as much. I am no exception. On a smoldering summer night in Sacramento, I’ve been keeping up with the action on GameCast like I do every day. But when it became clear history was in the making, I was summoned downstairs by my family. ESPN had tuned in to allow fans to watch it live. The summer, the Dodgers season, and my life were three outs away from an edifying moment.
Finally, the moment is here. The ninth inning. Three outs to destiny. LeMahieu is first up, immediately tapping to first. Gonzalez picks it up, and flips to Kershaw for the putout. While it was strategically necessary, it almost felt more like a diplomatic gesture for Kershaw to get that out. You wish he could get every out on a night like this, all by himself.
Next up is a guy named Charlie Culberson. Remember the other perfect moment in 2016 I mentioned, with Vin Scully? He’s gonna play a big role in that. And the year after that, he will make for an out that’s eluded the Dodgers since 1989. But to nick a Bruce Springsteen reference, that’s livin’ in the future, and none of that has happened yet. Right now on June 18, 2014, Culberson is just another Rockie rendered powerless by the greatest pitcher alive. He flies out to Yasiel Puig in right. Two down.
“There is one out to go,” Scully emphatically announces. “One miserable, measly out.”
Ellen Kershaw is beside herself, nervously holding on to a friend as the moment builds. In bookend fashion, the game will end just as it began: with Corey Dickerson at the plate. He falls behind 0-2 fast. Kershaw reaches for an unhittable pitch away. Dickerson has no chance.
Jubilation. Kershaw raises his arms in triumph, as the stadium reaches a deafening roar. Usually, a Dodgers victory means it’s time for the snarky kitsch of Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” Instead, Kershaw’s warm-up song, Fun’s world-conquering hipster anthem “We Are Young,” blares on the stadium speakers. Ellis, the man who received every blazing pitch, is the first to embrace his ace. The rest of the team is quick to swarm him, all while Ellen emotionally embraces her friend.
After individual congratulations from players and coaches, it’s time for the postgame interview. It almost seems trite. This is a moment beyond words for just us fans. How will our god come down enough to put it into words himself? Well, first he’s interrupted by a Gatorade dunk. Then he humbly thanks his fellow no-hitter teammate Josh Beckett, who he joked “told me he was gonna teach me how to do that.” In his lovably awe-shucks voice, he insists he was just happy the offense scored so much, and that he didn’t want to screw it up.
After that, more platitudes about how great the fans are, how special the rotation is, etc. Also, a brief interruption from the bubble machine. (Remember that?) Then, the moment that seals the magic of the night. Like Adrian finding Rocky in the ring after the final bell, Ellen walks up for a loving embrace. It’s time to end the interview, and let them have this celebration.
At home, I’m in heaven. Between typing all-caps comments on True Blue LA and celebrating with my family, I bombard my Facebook feed with celebratory posts. The image of Kershaw and Ellis embracing is my new profile pic. Being in Giants country, I get one or two snarky barbs from a Giant fan friend, but I don’t care. The possibilities of Kershaw, of this Dodger team, of life itself, feel absolutely limitless. A day or two later, while playing Team Fortress 2, another online player types “Kershaw baby!!!” into the in-game chat, to my never-ending delight.
By the numbers, it’s one of the most dominant games ever pitched. The only pitcher to strike out more batters in a no-hitter is Nolan Ryan, who whiffed 17 in 1973 and 16 in 1991. It’s the 22nd no-hitter in Dodgers franchise history, the most in baseball history. Kershaw’s game score (a stat invented by Bill James) is second only to Kerry Wood’s 20-K one-hitter in 1998. Only three Rockies hit a ball out of the infield.
While those superlatives win out emotionally, still…enmity towards Hanley lingers. All of this would be that much better if he had just made a coherent throw. Baseball is beautiful in that, win or lose, it’s almost always fair. But Kershaw pitched beyond well enough for a perfect game. He deserved it. Still, a no-hitter like this gives the season new life. And for Kershaw himself, his legend will only grow as the summer goes on.
I can only wish that Hanley’s error was the solitary blight on this majestic night. And technically, it was. But from today’s vantage point, it’s hard not to see Kershaw’s gem in a somewhat bittersweet light knowing how the season ended. Not the regular season, of course. He would finish that at 21-3, a nanoscopic 1.77 ERA, and an MLB-best 8.4 WAR. He won both the Cy Young *and* NL MVP. He had a 41.2-inning scoreless streak, which included his no-hitter. It’s a regular season performance that will be celebrated by Dodger fans and baseball historians for generations.
No, that bittersweetness is remembering the true end: the postseason. Nothing can ever erase the magic of watching 2014 Kershaw. But it still hurts to remember the sound of Dodger Stadium deflating as Matt Carpenter cleared the bases, capping a seventh-inning meltdown that changed the series. Or, for proof that baseball can just be mean, his crestfallen bow as Matt Adams got hold of that one hung curveball. In a manner befitting the Oracle of Delphi, an NL West team would win the World Series in 2014 on the back of their lefty ace. But it wasn’t Kershaw and the Dodgers, but rather Madison Bumgarner and the hated Giants.
Five years later, Kershaw’s greatest game is a moment whose legend only grows with the passage of time. On this anniversary, looking back on it feels almost surreal. The Los Angeles Dodgers have changed so much in that time. The games are now called by Joe Davis. Daily complaints about Ned Colletti are replaced by daily complaints about Andrew Friedman and analytics. Kemp, Gonzalez, Ellis, Gordon…they’re all gone. Even Puig is gone. Mattingly is long supplanted by Dave Roberts at the manager’s helm.
The world has changed a lot too, but there’s no need to delve into that. Baseball itself has changed just as rapidly. The game quickly became more youth-driven in 2015. The Cubs winning a World Series, a pop culture punchline for decades, actually happened. The Royals and Astros (sigh) have also won it too. On the darker side, labor relations have sunk to levels echoing 1994, among other issues.
Of course, things have changed a good deal for Kershaw himself. Now past the age of 30 and heading into the back end of his guaranteed Hall of Fame career, his prime is clearly behind him. This is not to disparage him, as he’s been doggedly stellar thus far in 2019. He’s made the adjustments necessary, leaning on different pitches to grind out winning starts. But the days of automatic dominance, of curves that can’t be hit, of double digit strikeouts as a given, are gone. All that’s left is that elusive World Series ring.
Lest I risk repeating my errant prediction in my first Dodgers Nation article, I’m calling it: this is the year. This is the year the Dodgers hoist that World Series trophy, completing Kersh’s legacy at last. Winning it all will no doubt be the highlight of Kershaw’s time in baseball. Why wouldn’t it? But when he hangs up the cleats for good one day, June 18, 2014 will be remembered as his single greatest performance.
By the strict terminology of baseball’s rules, it can’t be called a perfect game. Truth be told, it didn’t need to be. It was more than that. It was a perfect moment. Not just because of its historic level of pitching dominance, and its de-facto coronation of Kershaw as the best of his generation. Not just because of the heart-melting affection of Ellen and Vin Scully’s poetic narration.
It’s perfect because, by every measure, it can’t be replicated. It happened in the perfect space and time that can’t be replicated. Kershaw will never have another moment like it. The Dodgers will never have another moment like it. I, and the entire Dodgers fanbase, will never experience another moment like it. The entire world will never have another moment like it.
And that’s OK. Because in baseball, all you need is one moment to be immortal. Think Bucky Dent. Think Kirk Gibson. Hell, think MIguel Rojas in this very game. Clayton Kershaw has had many superlative moments, and more are sure to come.
But five years ago, he gave us the one we’ll remember best. The one that defines him. That defines us too.
Take a moment to appreciate that moment. It’s once in a lifetime.