As the Cincinnati Reds attempted to become the first team to sweep the Los Angeles Dodgers in a series since Aug. 2019, their challenge Wednesday was trying to solve future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw.
There’s a reason why it’s rare that teams sweep the Dodgers.
Kershaw, the eight-time All-Star and three-time Cy Young winner, was as good as ever. The 33-year-old lefty pitched seven scoreless innings while striking out eight. The Reds had only one runner touch third base in their 8-0 loss at Dodger Stadium.
The Reds, who entered the series against the defending World Series champions on a seven-game losing streak, were down by two runs in the eighth inning before the Dodgers scored six runs against reliever Sal Romano. They completed their road trip with a 2-4 record.
"The final score doesn’t dictate how that game was played or how this series was played," Reds starter Sonny Gray said. "We come in here and we look each other in the eyes and we decide to play. We decide to show up and to go after these guys. That’s who we are and that’s who we’re going to be from here on out.
"We’re not walking away from this thing with our heads hung after losing on a getaway day or losing on the last game of the series. That doesn’t dictate who we are and where we are as a team right now."
Gray couldn't match zeroes with Kershaw, but the best news for the Reds on Wednesday was that he looked like himself again. Gray struck out 11 in 5 2/3 innings, featuring a 95-mph two-seamer that constantly froze hitters with the way it tailed back over the corner of the plate. Six of his strikeouts were on called third strikes.
Then there was Gray’s curveball that was virtually untouchable. Dodgers hitters offered 15 swings at Gray’s curveball and whiffed 12 times. Dodgers right fielder Luke Raley was the only hitter who didn’t strike out at least once against Gray.
"Sonny was pretty nasty today," Kershaw said. "It was tough to see the ball. He was nasty."
Gray attacked hitters, throwing a first-pitch strike to 19 of his 23 batters. He had a stretch where he struck out nine of the 12 hitters he faced. It was his 10th career start with at least 10 strikeouts. He was one strikeout from matching his career-high.
"He looked really similar to what we've seen here the last couple of years," Reds manager David Bell said, "which is really encouraging."
It wasn’t a flawless start as Gray permitted four hits and three walks. In the third inning, he surrendered a two-out, solo homer to Justin Turner on a fastball that didn’t tail out of the middle of the plate. Turner hammered it 411 feet into the left-center seats for his sixth home run of the season.
But it was a huge step forward for Gray. He labored at the end of his first two starts after beginning the year on the injured list with mid-back muscle soreness. When he exited with two outs in the sixth inning, he had a line of teammates waiting to congratulate him in the dugout. Fellow starter Luis Castillo gave him a hug.
"I know just coming off of his last start, he wanted to make a statement," catcher Tyler Stephenson said. "He did. Velo was up. Command was there. Breaking ball was as good as always. It good to see him back to what he can be."
Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson felt Gray turned a corner after his last start. Johnson admitted he was concerned with Gray’s health – a trainer checked on him at one point – but when he saw Gray throwing the next day, he thought to himself, “wow, that’s different.”
"I went to bed after that game that night, and I just woke up and made a decision to just get to work," Gray said. "The way you feel, a lot of times, that can be as mental as it can be physical. A lot of times, once you go through something, it’s how long you’re going to hold onto it before you just make the decision to get back at it."
Gray threw a bullpen session Monday and Johnson said it was the best he’s seen him in a while. It wasn’t that Gray was worried about his back when he pitched. It just took him a long time to recover after he pitched. He didn’t have time to work on things between starts.
"I knew last night that I was going to throw the ball well," Gray said in his post-game interview. "I just felt good about how I was going to come out and compete. That’s all I really was trying to do today, compete."
The biggest thing that worked against Gray is that he was facing vintage Kershaw, who overpowered hitters with his slider and curveball. Kershaw, who permitted four hits and one walk, recorded 22 whiffs with his breaking balls, which matched a career-high, according to ESPN.
Nick Senzel provided three of the four hits against Kershaw. He hit a leadoff single in the first inning and stole second base. The threat ended with a strike 'em out, throw 'em out double play as Senzel tried to swipe third.
"I think if anything comes out of this, it's just the importance of remembering to believe in yourself," Bell said. "Continuing to have confidence no matter what's going on. I thought this Dodgers series was a good example of that even though we didn't win today. I do think a lot of positives did come out of that and we can continue to get better."