One Reds run had scored, and Kershaw was in danger of one swing of the bat changing everything in the sixth inning. With two on and two outs, Kershaw fell behind in the count to Drew Stubbs. But he dug deep, got out of the inning and led the Dodgers to a 6-2 victory Wednesday night.
"It was interesting," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "He got to 3-1 on Stubbs, and then he threw the next two pitches really hard and struck him out. It was like one of those situations like, 'OK, let's go, you and me.' That's not what he said, but that's what it looked like. He went after him."
The combination of Kershaw's strong outing, a few key defensive plays and timely hits allowed the Dodgers to jump to a half-game lead in the National League West, as the Padres lost to Toronto.
Torre has sensed that Kershaw finds out something new about himself every time he goes to the mound now. And whatever he's finding out is working.
In his past eight starts, Kershaw (7-3, 2.96 ERA) is 6-1. He's no longer having trouble in the early innings, and no more than one batter reached base in any of the first four innings against the Reds.
"For me, personally, I think it's just getting more comfortable," Kershaw said. "Toward the beginning of the season -- the first eight or nine starts -- I was having trouble settling ... the first inning was giving me problems getting my pitch count up, and it made it tough to make it through seven. What I take from what he [Torre] says is maybe I'm just channeling my energy a little bit better, just able to start more on top of my stuff earlier in the game."
The first four innings looked like a pitchers' duel between Kershaw and Cincinnati rookie Mike Leake, but Los Angeles finally broke through in the fifth and sixth innings. First baseman James Loney hit a two-run double in the fifth to put the Dodgers ahead, 2-0, while momentum completely swung on a three-run homer by right fielder Andre Ethier in the sixth.
The home run was Ethier's first since coming off the disabled list May 31, and it helped deliver Leake his first career loss.
"It came down to a bad pitch that kind of put it over the top," Leake said. "It was a curveball that went right back over the middle."
The Dodgers' offense picked its spots and got the key hits to chase Leake out of the game, while Kershaw kept dealing into the eighth inning. With his pitch count at 110 after Miguel Cairo reached on an error with one out, Kershaw came out of the game, finishing with one run and seven hits allowed along with seven strikeouts and just one walk.
The Reds made things interesting against the Los Angeles bullpen and loaded the bases, but Rafael Furcal continued a great series defensively by snagging a line drive off the bat of Stubbs and doubling up Jonny Gomes to escape the inning.
"This team's a good-hitting team so I gave up some hits, but I was able to minimize some damage and we made some plays behind me, so it was a good game for us," Kershaw said.
Concerns over health and youth surround the Dodgers' rotation, and at 22, Kershaw is far from a veteran in just his third full season in the Majors. But his continued development and improved comfort level is allowing him to look like a more seasoned veteran on the mound.
As for Kershaw developing into a clear No. 1 starter, Torre didn't necessarily want to make that statement.
"I don't think anybody anoints that, I think it's a matter of taking on the responsibility every time you pitch," Torre said. "When you ask the question about No. 1, I've said it many times and I continue to say it, he certainly isn't afraid of it. I'm more afraid of it than he is because I don't think it's fair at this point to say here, he's the one that's going to lead us, because he still has a ways to go."
But for the most part Wednesday, he controlled the NL's top offense. No. 1 or not, the confidence continues to build, and no matter the night, Torre believes his young pitcher always has a chance to win.
"I think once he understood the certain adjustments he had to make, it was just a matter of fine-tuning and going out there," Torre said. "A big thing is the fact that he goes out there sometimes and doesn't have his best stuff and is still able to pitch a quality game. That's an important lesson to learn."
Matt Brown is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.