SAN FRANCISCO – The desperation of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team in possession of baseball's best record yet stuck in the sport's longest losing streak in 2017, streamed across the face of Clayton Kershaw on Tuesday night.
You could see it in the fourth inning, when he roared at his dugout after his double continued a four-run rally. You could see it again in the sixth, when Kershaw maintained a lead in a 5-3 victory by striking out former teammate Tim Federowicz, pounding his glove and screaming into the night.
After 11 defeats in a row, the lengthiest stretch of uninterrupted ineptitude since the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, the team managed to win a baseball game. They did so against a last-place team by a slim margin. No matter: A win, as the saying goes, is a win. And this one clinched a playoff spot for L.A.
Trailing 1-0, the Dodgers grabbed the lead in the fourth after a homer by Chase Utley, that double by Kershaw and a two-run double by Yasiel Puig. Kershaw (17-3) provided six innings of two-run baseball. Ross Stripling gave up a run in the seventh, but Justin Turner added some insurance with an RBI double in the eighth.
The ending was harrowing. Kenley Jansen loaded the bases in the ninth on a series of well-placed singles before closing the door. Jansen pounded his chest after striking out Buster Posey and Nick Hundley to end the game.
The Dodgers had hoped Kershaw could end the streak last week. Instead, pitching for the second time since a five-week absence caused by his strained back, Kershaw yielded four runs and could not complete the fourth inning against Colorado. He still showed rust Tuesday, giving up eight hits. Yet the details could not offset the relief unleashed by a victory.
As Kershaw prepared during the afternoon, bench coach Bob Geren taped the lineup at a crooked angle on a clubhouse whiteboard. At least it wasn't hung upside down. The losing streak felt worthy of a signal for distress. So did the presence of Curtis Granderson in left field and Yasmani Grandal behind the plate.
Manager Dave Roberts stressed Tuesday afternoon the illogical nature of blaming only one or two players. The malaise has spread across the entire roster. The group deserves blame, Roberts insisted. But Granderson and Grandal are among the least-productive regulars. Granderson hit .111 in his first 22 games as a Dodger; heading into Tuesday, Grandal was batting .038 since Sept. 1.
The game found the duo in the top of the third, with runners in scoring position. Up came Granderson. Giants starter Johnny Cueto fell behind 3-0 and Granderson took a walk to load the bases. He passed the baton to Grandal, a player struggling to differentiate between balls and strikes at the plate.
Cueto spotted a slider inside for one strike. Grandal stared at a belt-high fastball for strike two. Three pitches later, he swung through an elevated fastball that looked outside the zone. The Dodgers stranded seven runners in the first three innings.
In the bottom of the third, Kershaw threw a pair of balls to Giants shortstop Kelby Tomlinson. Kershaw turned to his most reliable weapon – an inside fastball. The choice seemed safe: Tomlinson had not homered in a big league game since Oct. 3, 2015.
Kershaw looked bewildered after Tomlinson made contact. The ball soared into the left-field seats, for the third homer of Tomlinson's career.
The Dodgers found an answer in the fourth. They had gone nearly three weeks without formulating an inning like this.
It started with Utley. He clobbered a 3-1 fastball. The ball soared over the bricks in right field and splashed into McCovey Cove to tie the score.
Kershaw extended the rally. The Giants aided his cause. As Kershaw ripped a liner into left field, Austin Slater lost track of the baseball in the lights. Slater came up empty. Kershaw sprinted to second.
The Dodgers benefited from more mistakes by San Francisco. Chris Taylor hit a grounder to Tomlinson. Kershaw broke for third base a moment late. Tomlinson threw wide of the bag, which allowed Kershaw to slide and avoid a tag from third baseman Orlando Calixte. Kershaw looked uncomfortable as he rose, but shooed away Roberts and trainer Neil Rampe. Then he scored the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly by Corey Seager.
The Giants elected to intentionally walk Cody Bellinger with two outs. A 3-2 changeup floated over the middle to Puig. He banged it off the wall in left-center to bring home two more runs.
Kershaw needed the cushion. The Giants pestered him throughout the evening. Hundley led off the bottom of the fourth with a double, but was cut down at the plate by Taylor after a two-out single by Tomlinson.
In the sixth, Kershaw wobbled once more. He permitted singles by Hunter Pence and Posey to start the frame. Kershaw filled up the zone with strikes, but he struggled to miss bats. He fanned Hundley after a seven-pitch duel, then watched the bases load up when Turner made an errant throw on a grounder by Slater.
A sacrifice fly by Calixte cut the Dodgers' lead to two. After Tomlinson walked to load the bases, Kershaw managed to disarm the threat when Federowicz swung over a pair of sliders before whiffing on a curveball to preserve the lead.