Sure, we all wondered, but what did we really expect? Something less than the brilliance that's typified his young career? It was probably foolish to think otherwise.
Indeed, Dodgers ace of aces Clayton Kershaw, over his back troubles and making his first start since March 22, suffocated the Nationals across seven shutout innings. In those seven innings, Kershaw struck out nine, walked zero and allowed nine hits. Yes, the hit total is out of character, but none of them went for extra bases. As well, 68 of Kershaw's 89 pitches went for strikes, and he induced a pair of groundball double plays and even notched a pickoff. Oh, and he never needed more than 17 pitches to get out of any inning. Bear in mind that Kershaw did all this against an offense that entered the night as perhaps MLB's best against left-handed pitching.
As you can imagine given those nine base-runners, Kershaw ran up against some key spots. Time and again in those key spots, he went to his breaking ball. Let's just say that -- despite the layoff, the injury and a spring routine disrupted by the season-opening series in Australia -- Kershaw's slider and curve, two pitches so dependent on command and "feel," were as sharp as ever.
For instance, take this one served up to Scott Hairston with two on and one out in the fourth ...
That was one of 13 swing-and-misses Kershaw recorded on breaking pitches Tuesday night.
As for his fastball, Brooks Baseball clocked it at 94.0 mph with a max of 95.4. That's a few ticks higher than his average four-seamer in 2012 and 2013, and remember that velos tend to be lower earlier in the season. Speaking of the fastball, he didn't throw it quite as often as he usally does, but he did spot it for strikes a rather astounding 85.7 percent of the time. Yep: command.
In the final analysis, Tuesday night's effort reinforced the all-but-indisputable notion that Kershaw is still the best pitcher in baseball. On that point, here's a scary thought: The six-week layoff moving forward may actually be of benefit to Kershaw, who's coming off a 2013 season in which, counting the playoffs, he worked 259 innings.
Most of all, Clayton Kershaw is still Clayton Kershaw.