MILWAUKEE — Somewhere in a flood of strikeouts was a historic night by the game’s best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw. There was a go-ahead homer in extra innings by the National League’s top rookie, Cody Bellinger. The final score — Los Angeles Dodgers 2, Milwaukee Brewers 1 in 12 innings — suggests a terse nail-biters between contending clubs, which it was.
But there was that flood, one whiff after another, almost faster than you could write K’s on your scorecard. And despite all of the historical footnotes written on a warm Friday in Milwaukee, the lingering question is simply this: How many strikeouts does one game really need?
Let’s start with Kershaw. When he struck out Jonathan Villar swinging on a 93-mph fastball in the second, it gave him 2,000 for his career in what was his 277th game. Only Randy Johnson (262) has gotten there quicker. That was a pretty good story, if only it could be the story of the game.
“Strikeouts were a little bit contagious today,” Kershaw said. “Sometimes you just kind of get on that roll.”
Kershaw had been cuffed around in his previous outing, allowing 11 hits and four runs in 4⅓ innings against the Cubs. Then to start his outing Friday, he gave up a double to Keon Broxton and walked Eric Thames. But before you could conjure the word “slump” in the knee-jerk-reaction portion of your brain, he retired 20 consecutive Milwaukee hitters, 12 of them via strikeout. He finished with 14 K’s, one shy of his career high.
“He was unbelievable,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I don’t know what else to say. He was lights-out. He had command of everything he got moving toward home plate.”
Kershaw made one mistake, leaving a fastball up to Domingo Santana in the seventh, and Milwaukee’s emerging slugger rifled it over the fence in left-center to give the Brewers a 1-0 lead. You see, it was an old-fashioned pitchers’ duel. Jimmy Nelson, coming off the second double-digit strikeout game of his career, posted another, becoming the first Brewers pitcher to have back-to-back 10 strikeout games without walking a batter. He shut out the Dodgers for eight innings.
“He pitched better than me,” Kershaw said.
Great stuff. Old school. Then the new school got involved.
The Dodgers’ bullpen started a strikeout onslaught, as it is wont to do. While Brewers closer Corey Knebel gave up a game-tying homer to Yasmani Grandal in the ninth, mostly a steady parade of relievers came on and struck batter after batter. Pedro Baez had five in his typically methodical fashion. Grant Dayton struck out side in the 10th. Kenley Jansen add four more in his two frames.
“Our bullpen, can’t say enough about those guys,” Kershaw said. “Five [scoreless] innings, Kenley being willing to go out there in a non-save situation and a second inning, it’s a testament to him.”
Combined with Kershaw’s total, those 12 bullpen whiffs gave the Dodgers 26 in the game, tying the big-league record. Three other teams have struck out 26, and they all needed at least 17 innings to do it. The Dodgers’ 22nd strikeout tied a franchise record set against Cincinnati in 1972.
Milwaukee pitchers finished with 16 strikeouts. The 42 combined whiffs were a National League record and the third-most overall, according to baseball-reference.com. The two games that had more both went at least 18 innings. That includes the record 48 strikeouts in a Sunday Night Baseball game earlier this season, an 18-inning Yankees victory over the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Roberts said. “As a baseball fan, it was really fun to watch.”
Is fun really the right word? Let’s put this another way: We’re just barely past Memorial Day, and the Dodgers and Brewers just combined for 42 strikeouts in one game. And it’s not even a major-league season high. We’ve seen this trend grow year after year. According to baseball-reference.com, entering Friday teams were averaging 8.23 strikeouts per game. Of course it’s a record; this will be the 10th consecutive season the mark has been erased.
Home runs are up again, too, and all three runs scored Friday came via solo homers. At 1.22 homers per game, baseball is on pace to set an all-time high. Meanwhile, with strikeouts continuing to climb and homers doing the same and walks up and fly-ball rates rising, balls in play are way down and the collective batting average is the lowest it has been since 1972.
If felt like these factors converged around the ninth inning of Friday’s game, when both teams went for the pump, as they used to say, hunting for that one big long ball that Bellinger finally found against Neftali Feliz, the one pitcher who did not strike out anybody. There were, again, 42 strikeouts. There were, by comparison, 13 base hits.
So how many strikeouts are too many? Here’s one possibility: Remember that figure of 8.23 strikeouts per game? Teams are averaging 8.54 hits per game. That’s easily the closest those two numbers have ever been.
Last season, there were .68 more hits per game than strikeouts. The season before it was .86. Ten years ago it was 2.29. Thirty years ago it was 3.88. We’re fast reaching the point when the average game will feature more strikeouts than hits.
What was it like to watch a game with 42 strikeouts? For 7½ innings, it was great. But as the strikeouts continued to pour into Miller Park, the stadium grew quiet for long stretches. Fans began to wander up the aisles. It was history in motion, and with each passing inning fewer and fewer wanted to watch it.
By definition, record-setting games are outliers. There’s no denying that Friday’s was memorable. But when a record feels so much like the inevitable by-product of an unwanted league-wide trend, it’s a bit unsettling. This should have been Clayton Kershaw’s night. Or Cody Bellinger’s. Or Jimmy Nelson’s.
Instead, the night belonged to plate umpire Ben May. Surely, after ringing up 42 batters, May was the one guy more than any other who needed a good ice down after the game.